Why figurative? (by Olga Norris)

Victor Pasmore Spiral Development: The Snowstorm (1950-51), Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London

 I am constantly being tugged by abstracts which I find inspirational, and which keep asking me why not make abstract work?  Why always figurative?

I admire so much in the Japanese textile canon, so many pieces of which I have been lucky enough to see in one of Linda Millar’s curated exhibitions such as the current Cultex show.   I look at works by artists such as Carol FarrowJan Garside, Jean Lyons Butler,  and so many others in textiles, painting, sculpture, etc., and even ask myself whether I should be trying to work to an abstract imperative.  I have even felt that perhaps being a creator of abstract work marks one out as being more intellectually ‘valid’ as a contemporary artist.

Such are the self-doubting thoughts which flit about from time to time in my brain.  Now, after ten years of developing my textile work, I don’t beat myself up for not trying to think in abstracts.  However, I do still enjoy reading articles such as that of painter and art writer Julian Bell in the Guardian newspaper this morning.

My own answer to why figurative is that that’s how I express myself.  It might change in the future, but that would have to come about naturally, as part of my expressive need.  As I have found over these ten years, every time I try to contrive a result it ends up a mess.  That’s not to say that I simply emote.  I try to be rigorous and critical with what I do produce; but just as I accept that I’m working in textiles rather than stone, paint, or clay, I’m also dealing with the figure rather than being abstract.  Perhaps one day I shall find that I can move between the two, like Carole Waller


Meantime, I do rather enjoy relaxing with my figures and no longer beating myself up for perhaps not being ‘cutting edge’ enough!

I’d be interested to read whether anyone else had/has similar questions about their work.


7 Responses to “Why figurative? (by Olga Norris)”

  1. 1 news article February 11, 2013 at 2:33 am

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  2. 2 olganorris May 3, 2010 at 4:40 am

    This being drawn to what one does not make oneself, as noted by Jean is an interesting theme which I’ve often heard. Perhaps as Kate implies it is a question of interpretive need.

    Perhaps it is after all a question of the balance of needs. It’s interesting, June, that your current textile work is pulling towards abstract. If art is the expression – the overspill – of considered thoughts and emotions from within an artist, then could we say that the physical form of that overspill is in its simplest form a manifestation of the overwhelming abundance of particular thought/emotion or group of thoughts/emotions.

    So while we can enjoy, even intimately recognise the overspill of others, we cannot produce it ourselves unless we too have a similar glut. This ties in with so many folk being thoroughly dissatisfied with any – even the most diligent – attempts at different kinds of work.

    I have often wondered, for instance, what will happen to my own production of work once my mother is no longer so prominent in my emotional life. The life long relationship with her and its ups, downs, and further downs, I believe, has provided me with my concentration on the subject of human relations/interaction. I idly speculate -a pointless occupation, but so much of life is thus passed! – whether I will turn to abstract minimalism, or perhaps not be able to produce work at all if there is no overspill?!

    As Clairan says, thank goodness there is an abundance of so much different work around that there will never not be something to appreciate.

  3. 3 kate May 2, 2010 at 5:49 am

    Olga, I feel like you were speaking for me! I understand the appeal because I love to look at abstract art myself. Abstract work engages the viewer in a different way – as onlookers we must interpret the work from our own perspective. We can make something mean anything we want, regardless of what inspired the artist. With figurative art, the viewer is being asked to notice something from the artist’s point of view. The artist has taken a familiar object or face and attached something of themselves to it. It’s much harder for the viewer to create their own story when faced with a recognizable subject.
    In some ways, abstract vs. figurative art is comparable to personal experience vs. shared experience. Life should be full of both. It has seemed to me that abstract art may be afforded more credibility and attention right now compared to other times in history. When was the last time a figurative piece has made the cover of the SAQA journal?
    And I have had the same doubts and have attempted many “forced” abstract pieces, only to fail miserably. Art needs to be an expression from within. So I’ve also come to the conclusion that my personal artistic voice cannot be dictated by sales trends or other people’s idea of fine art, or even by other artists’ work that I enjoy and admire.
    True, figurative pieces may not sell as well (on average) as abstract. But the pieces that DON’T sell end up hanging in my own home, so I might as well create stuff that I feel good about.

  4. 4 June May 1, 2010 at 8:19 pm

    As usual, Olga, you articulate concerns and point in directions that are thought-provoking and indeed maddening in their indeterminacy. That is to say — I have the same question, albeit through different mediums and am maddened by my inability to translate readily from one to the other even as I really really want to.

    My painting is primarily representational — mostly “scapes” –land, city, hamlet — with a bit of wonky vision thrown in. Occasionally I try to stay within traditional limits of, say, landscape, but I always find myself narrating (as Julian Bell might say) at the very least, the way the sun moves and changes color and light and shadow and hues over a day’s length. Any time I have enough room to do it on the surface, I will indicate a narrative. And if the painting doesn’t tell the story, I will

    but I’m now back to doing some textile work and finding that textiles for me seem to want to go abstract. Collage, at times, which might include something recognizable and able to be named, but the nature of fabric pushes me toward the abstract.

    But stitching (rather than piecing) such as you do and some of the artists you provided urls to, can go either direction, it seems to me, and do so readily. They are outside the American quilting traditions and so don’t have the cultural baggage that quilting does in the States.

    I can’t leave this comment to be sure I’m remembering the right artists with the right images, but (if I’m identifying the right artist) the painted cloth of Carol Waller grabs me — she doesn’t stitch, but also doesn’t piece or play with making fabric. She simply uses the transparency of fabric to produce her elegant cloth paintings. And the stitching of Jan Garside is wonderfully abstract, but calligraphic. Even the other artist, who paints with acrylic and then waxes isn’t working from the quilted tradition, which is what I think pushes people into abstraction so thoroughly. Or, I should say, pushes me into abstraction so thoroughly.

    You have, of course, settled into something like a comfortable position vis-a-vis your own work — and yet you continue to puzzle over whether you should be so comfortable. My painted abstracts are, in general, quite good when hidden under landscapes (I’m not being sarcastic; they really do function beautifully to make richer color). They are not quite so good as stand-alones, although I have perhaps 3 (out of 40 or so attempts) that I am willing to keep around where I can see them. But I continue to try to produce pleasing abstractions in paint, albeit with nothing like progressive success.

    And I have a few representational textile pieces that aren’t too banal to please me — figures of older women, painted and then stitched with traditional quilting techniques. Other representational work that I have done seems too, well, too simple-minded, without passion, pretty rather than awesome. It’s relatively easy to make a pretty quilted flower piece, painted, appliqued, or pieced, and if exquisitely crafted, it’s well worth doing. But my interest in never in exquisite crafting (I’m from the “competent is good enough” school) so the prettiness I find deeply unsatisfying.

    So like you, I wonder why I can’t do the other thing, whichever it is. But like you, I too think perhaps an integration of the figurative with, if not the abstract, then the “unreal,” might be a direction I can move in. I’m working on some canvases in that mode at the moment, and also picking my way through some conventionally quilted work that might (or might not) end up more absurdly real than abstract.

    But I really loved the work of the artists you pointed out. Another blogger who is exploring a whole lifetime’s worth of stitching and drawing is Nancy Engstad: http://websandthreads.wordpress.com

    Her blog entries keep circling her history of drawing and then coming to textiles but retaining her drawing through stitching — abstract, and interesting, like Jan Garside.

    Thank you for providing this impetus to questions and the answers others seem to have. And Julian Bell is always fun to read. Pthalo blue was perfect, of course.

  5. 5 Clairan May 1, 2010 at 7:22 pm

    Isn’t it wonderful that the world (and thus the art world by extension) is large and contains multitudes? Room enough and kind for everyone — abstracts, figures, landscapes, still lifes, realistic, impressionistic, expressionistic, and non-representative all. Your beautiful figures come from your inner life, and I applaud that! As you say, validity comes from within.

  6. 6 Sunny May 1, 2010 at 7:15 pm

    Great post. I am fairly new to the world of ‘art’ ( I hesitate to use that term for anything I make), having made my first quilt 6 or so years ago and only becoming serious in the past two or three years. Limits on my ability to work mean I don’t get a lot done quickly. I am struggling with the question of style. I find myself concerned that what I do will appear derivative or even flatly copied from some real artist’s work. And yes, I also wonder if abstract work is somehow more valid than the simple images that I seem to find in my head. I have absolutely no training in design or art, and find myself intimidated by those who are showing and selling their work. Where is validity and what is real art as opposed to a glorified baby quilt or something akin to folk craft? I am working hard now to break out of the paralysis of comparing myself to others and fearing scorn for my attempts to express myself. Looking at your work, Olga, I see the kind of fusion that I am seeking between figurative and abstract. Much of your work seems to be to be hovering in a fine and rare space between the two. ‘Towards’ and ‘Surfacing’ in particular are moving, powerful works that defy simple classification.

  7. 7 Jean M. Judd May 1, 2010 at 4:42 am

    A wonderful post, Olga. I come from the exact opposite side. I work mainly in abstracts and partial geometrics and not figurative. I enjoy exploring the detail of figurative artists and appreciate their mastery of the drawing and painting (whether using fiber, paints, pencil, clay, etc). I’m drawn to realistic, figurative work in museums also, not as much the abstract work.

    As a contradiction, I’m a more left brained person and have a difficult time interpreting a realistic image in my textile artwork. For all my training in precision in business and accounting, I find most of my work needs to be abstract. It just flows without thought for the most part. I also struggle when I try to go the opposite direction and the result is less then satisfying personally as well as technically.

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