Tell me what you see? (And don’t scroll down before you have an idea)

In the first image, I see a donkey on two legs, trying to visualize where its master is. Not seeing him in the busy shopping street, Donkey takes the opportunity to unload the bulky parcels in an explosion of joy. After all, Donkey's been waiting for this moment all his life.

I guess my question is: how do we perceive abstraction? And do we need to know what we see in order to appreciate it?

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A few years ago, while helping my parents empty our family house, I fell upon a file that my mother never had the heart to throw. Half of dozens of my paintings from kindergarten, dated from 1979 – I was three.

I was struck by the movement in them. I also noted some similarities with my later works, like the colour palettes and the symbolic three characters/shadows which return in my oil paintings (see here). Moreover, and that’s where I am getting jealous at my younger self, I see in them a free expression and a loose gesture. Qualities that I struggle with today.

I don’t know if I was particularly talented, but one thing is sure, I absolutely loved to paint and draw – like most children, I assume. It’s also this precious age when we are not yet expected to be ‘correct’ and our imagination has no limits. A child’s drawing doesn’t need to represent reality as it is – on the contrary, horses can have super powers and fly on a water carpet while next-door in the sky, red giraffes are having a pick-nick upside-down. Because, why not?

So what happens next? Growing up means learning how to live within the bounds of what is now known. To some extent, the more we know, the less we can imagine or think differently. Saying that, we also have the possibility to see codes as codes. Yet, there is a discomfort with incorrect proportions, shifts of perspective or unrecognizable ‘things/shapes’. Maybe we can say that on the way to becoming an experienced adult, we lose some perspective on life…

At age fifteen with my class, we went on a field-trip to Paris and visited the Centre Pompidou. I didn’t expect much of it, and certainly not the shock that followed: I was unable to move away from a Pollock painting. My legs literally couldn’t move and felt like cotton. I guess I was in awe. I had no idea what I was seeing exactly: chaotic drips of paint forming a dense web, which altogether expressed a movement rather than portrayed it. As much as I appreciated the aesthetics of the painting, I was more moved by what I could not see, yet could imagine very clearly: a sweaty and driven Pollock turning around the canvas like an animal ready to pounce. There was an energy in that flat rectangle that simply blew me away.

This is why I find Art so precious, as perhaps the only place left where we welcome the ‘Untitled’. But Art is not easy, and I can understand how overwhelming it may seem to be in a place without known codes. Codes are engraved in our bodies, in our habits, in our tastes and our beliefs. Every day I need to fight with myself in the studio in order to claim back the abilities I had as a child to paint freely.

A friend told me once that abstraction was the absence of figuration. Yet, we both felt that this absence had a weight and a form. It’s hard to know for sure!

Love, Ethel

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Ps, don’t forget to drop a comment, I would love to know what you think!

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