Footstep in the sands of Wadi Rum, Jordan, 2008

Abstract Art – An Encounter

I am here in a corridor of a large investment bank in central London looking at a new piece of work by what must be one of London’s best new abstract artists.

Behind me, the glass façade of the west side of this impressive building offers a bright view onto one of London’s many cobblestone lanes. And opposite, in front of me, is a plain wall of the kind that may be found in many of today’s offices all around the world. Plain, except for the work of art that hangs there, approximately one foot by two, as if it were a window onto a strange world quite different to the one of cobblestones behind me.

And what a piece of work it is! The only sensible way of analysing such a complex creation is to attempt to break it down and analyse its various aspects separately. We can then reassemble our findings, consider all that we have learnt, and finally come to some sort of conclusion concerning this intricate conundrum. This is our destination, and so on with our journey.

Firstly, the medium. The artist has chosen to use ink on paper, and interestingly to combine this with a lamination process that gives the work a distinctive shiny appearance. A reflective surface intended by the artist, I think, to highlight the observer’s own reflections on the work. A literal metaphor, if you will, suggesting that we are looking into a mirror of our own psyche, no less.

Moving to one side, to avoid the reflected glare from the overhead fluorescent light, and the work is revealed. At first sight it appears to be a random scattering of coloured blocks, meandering lines, and cryptic symbols. Although the impression is one of chaos, one cannot escape the feeling that somewhere within this confusion is perhaps an underlying order, a profound meaning, if only we were astute enough to divine it. Let us begin this attempt by examining its structural form.

The juxtaposition of the lines with the blocks suggests a dichotomy of the one-dimensional versus the two-dimensional, or the simple versus the complex. To some this might suggest progress, a metaphor for technological advancement and society’s reliance on the ever-increasing complexity of a modern mode of living. To me, it suggests more than this. It also evokes a sense of nostalgia for a simpler way of life, and perhaps offers the prospect of those old and new ways actually living together in harmony. Indeed, nowhere on the canvas does a two-dimensional shape exist on its own – they are all connected to one or more neighbouring shapes by none other than the seemingly inferior one-dimensional forms. It appears that the simple and the complex, the old and the new, are inextricably linked. They live side by side, and both are the richer for it.

The colours used here are bold. Bright reds, blues, greens and yellows abound, all floating within a stark, white space. A statement is being made, and the artist certainly isn’t afraid to make it! And yet there is restraint here as well. Each block of colour is contained within a thin, black, rectangular perimeter. The statement may be bold, but it knows its own limits and it stays within its angular boundaries. It is quite rightly saying that knowledge is finite and exists within the infinite vacuum of ignorance.

And so to those strings of cryptic glyphs. They are the key, I believe, to the whole work. They appear both within the various coloured blocks and without. They also crawl along many of the one-dimensional forms in, one might say, an almost parasitical manner. Their appearance is reminiscent of a laboratory slide showing bacteria attempting to infect healthy cells. The glyphs are certainly some sort of code, perhaps in the same way that DNA is a code. Could these strings represent the very essence of nature itself? If so, we are witnessing the eternal struggle of life, the endless battle to survive, reproduce, and secure a future for one’s own species. (There are weighty themes here, indeed!) The question arises, although one might disagree, of which side we should take in this particular battle being fought out before our very eyes. Is one form of life more deserving of existence than another? I think not. We might not understand the glyph forms quite as well as the more approachable blocks of colour, but surely that should not lessen the glyphs’ right to survive in the only way they know how. Perhaps we should view this scene with the dispassionate detachment of a laboratory scientist viewing that slide of bacteria. I think that, here, this is the right course of action to take. The artist is forcing us to acknowledge the divide between observer and observed, between Man and Nature. We are at once part of a greater whole, and yet apart from it.

And so, standing back a little, we ask ourselves: What do we have? And what does it all mean? Well, what we have is a mirror onto one’s own psyche, an inevitable technological and societal progression, knowledge and ignorance, and the fundamental struggle for existence. Clearly, this is all saying that we are complex, ever-changing creatures, with a diverse and multifaceted awareness of our own place in the universe, but where there are differences there is also opportunity for a stable, possibly symbiotic, co-existence that can and should benefit all. This, I am certain, is the intended message. Even the work’s intriguing title, “Wide Area Network Diagram”, clearly suggests that the dissimilar can live and work together in harmony. As in all great works of art, it is a reflection of ourselves, of who we really are, of what we were and of what we will become.

I stand here humbled in the presence of this important new piece of work, and have to commend the investment bank for commissioning, and displaying to its employees, what is surely a defining example of the still vibrant movement of abstract art.