by L. Nichols
I remember the first time I went to a museum and saw abstract art. I was 9 or 10 or 11 (somewhere around there) and we had driven 3 hours from my home town to go to Houston, TX to the museum. I was excited about the Renaissance art and also about the Impressionist art we saw there. They were easily relatable, their representation was obvious. And then I came across the more abstract stuff. I was confused. I didn’t really like them, per se…. but I was drawn to them nonetheless. Looking at them felt like I was fighting myself. I kind of laughed them off and ignored how they made me feel. But as I grew older, I found that I was still drawn to them. I began to understand a bit more about why an artist would choose that path. And I came to both appreciate it and be influenced by it.
From a small child, I was taught that representational art is what I should be striving for as an artist. “Oh, that does look like so-and-so,” or “That is a horse,” or whatever. What garnered praise from the adults and from my peers were the things that looked like something. This reinforcement only furthered the idea that there is a “right” way and a “wrong” way to the art I was making. Seeing abstract art in a museum, in a place of honor, made me start questioning that assumption.
It wasn’t until I was much older that I discovered abstract comics. I think it was probably in the comics class I took via the Comparative Media Studies department that I first saw one. Several years later, living in NYC and really trying to discover what comics meant to me as a creator, was when I really started looking and thinking about abstract comics more deeply. Why did they work? Do they work? How do they work? So many questions!
As a creator, I find that creating abstract comics can be both liberating and paralyzing. Sometimes at the same time! But I find myself more and more enjoying experimenting with abstraction and more and more drawn to studying the abstractions of others. For sure, not everything is my cup of tea. Some things I am drawn to more than others. Some things I find to be a bit of a challenge to relate to. But even the difficult stuff, I try to pick apart. I want to know what makes them tick. I want to know how to make them tick.
Honestly, pure abstraction is really hard for me! I tend towards the figurative. Maybe it’s because of all that reinforcement about drawing things that look like other things from when I was growing up. I like to think it has something more to do with my own desire to relate to the work I make and the work other people make. I find the human element to be very relatable. Plus, I find people endlessly fascinating. So many variations on the theme of human!
And, to be fair, even the figure can be taken as the source of abstraction. Us humans are amazing at seeing ourselves in the things we view. Even the tiniest bit can imply human to us. Maybe it is the colors used. Or maybe we see eyes somewhere, two dots at a distance. Or maybe just the use of rounded shapes. We want to see ourselves.
The more I look at abstraction, the more I realize that abstraction in comics holds its own unique power. A single painting can impose a sense of emotion, can evoke feelings. Comics, with their panels and structure seem to imply that there is a structure. When we see them, we recognize the structure and seek to understand it. We want to resolve the transition between panels, even if there really is no intended resolution. Or maybe if there are no panels, we try to resolve the juxtaposition of pages, of images. Just like we tend to see ourselves in even the smallest hint of human, we tend to impose order and logic when there’s even just the smallest hint of order.
If you think about comics in terms of affordances, “action possibilities” latent in the environment, the very structure of comics as a medium implies order, implies sequentiality, and encourages the reader to engage them as such. Abstract comics plays with this idea, examines this idea. What is a sequence? What do these images next to each other mean? Do they mean anything at all? Why does this move me? Why did this person make this in this way?
I think this is one of the greatest thing about abstract comics, this tension between the impulse to impose order and the knowledge that maybe there is no order to be found. This tension is different for every person, since it is brought about by a person’s expectations of what ‘should be,’ shaped by his or her prior experiences. In this tension we can find ourselves because it is us who have created it. Maybe we should think of abstraction as a mirror, a way to examine ourselves.
- Mark Rothko
- James Romberger
- L. Nichols
- Cecily Brown
- L. Nichols