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Stop Making Sense | To appreciate abstract art, donít look for meaning in the usual way. | By Mike Rosen-Molina

Berkeley artist Francesca Saveri, who specializes in encaustic painting, uses heated wax to create colorful abstract images. Like many modern artists, she knows her work might not be instantly accessible to everyone. Visitors to her gallery don’t always know how to interpret paintings like “Dig This Copy,” where bright crimson rings pop out from a rainbow backdrop, or “Raw Beauty,” where dabs of white and blue dance over a puzzle-piece landscape of yellows and oranges. But that’s good.

“Landscapes and representational art sell more than abstract art—because it’s natural to look at a picture and think, ‘Oh, there’s a vase,’” says Severi, 53. “Abstract art is more challenging. Kids can get into it more than adults because they aren’t as conditioned to look for meaning. Abstract hits you on an emotional level, but many adults are so caught up in their daily lives that they seldom pause enough to get emotional response. For adults, abstract art is a way to pause and slow down.”

For East Bay artists like Saveri, abstract art’s appeal is that it defies easy categorization, which makes it especially intriguing for baby boomers and older adults. Both children and adults enjoy looking at representational art—where they can easily identify people and objects in the painting—but abstract art, more difficult to interpret, holds a special appeal for an adult ready to challenge herself. By keeping a few simple guidelines in mind, even a novice art patron can learn to appreciate these trickier visual arts.

“Art can seem difficult when the picture or narrative is taken away: the figures, recognizable objects, and formats,” says Amanda Klimek, program coordinator at the Berkeley Art Center. “We can think of these elements as an easy-access doorway into a work—or like a good smell coming from a kitchen—it lures you in, gets you in the door, and then you can absorb the rest of the work. When the familiarity is gone, the door is not really closed, you just have to make the decision to walk through it.”

That decision can make some adults feel uncomfortable or vulnerable; we often feel that, as adults, we should already have all the answers. Abstract art by its nature requires longer contemplation, and that can make some viewers feel like they’re “dumb” or “just not getting it.” Because contemporary visual arts can look so alien compared to the real world, it can lead to a knee-jerk reaction of “That isn’t art.”

For example, visitors to Jane Norling’s Oakland gallery sometimes get sheepish when they can’t immediately understand the meanings behind her pictures. “Nobody has to apologize,” says Norling emphatically. Norling, 66, specializes in abstract landscapes—they’re based on scenes that she’s seen in nature, visits to Yellowstone or Yosemite, and sometimes visitors might recognize the mountain or forest that inspired her. Yet she creates stylized portraits of nature with swaths of cool green or dry yellow that evoke a mood rather than exactly replicate what she’s seen. “Whatever you see in them, that’s what they’re about. Anything that draws you in is valid. It’s not a quiz. I don’t want people to feel like they have to guess what they mean,” Norling says.

Part of the history of 20th-century art included some artists shifting away from realism (the invention of photography freed visual artists from competing on that front). Abstract art has not always found an accepting audience. Today’s boomers were still kids when the movement began to take hold.

In 1947, the U.S. State Department created a touring exhibition of modern artists called Advancing American Art. The plan was to demonstrate to the world the vitality and creativity of the American art scene—the bright colors and vivid designs made a stark contrast to the stoic, static human figures seen in Soviet Realist art. The drip paintings of Jackson Pollock, the exaggerated angular figures of Willem De Kooning, and the simple rectangular designs of Mark Rothko hit the world stage after World War II; these artists’ rise to fame coincided with America’s emergence both as a superpower and a world leader in visual arts. The early 20th century also saw the birth of numerous art movements, including surrealism and Dada that experimented with different art forms.


But even 100 years later, many intelligent, educated people find it difficult to lose themselves in contemporary art. Abstract artists often strive to communicate emotions or moods through their work rather than concrete ideas. In fact, looking at abstract art requires a completely different mindset than looking at representational art.

“Viewing modern art should start as a visceral experience, nonverbal, and sensuous,” says New York–based art critic Jeffrey Sussman. “One need not know anything about modern art in order to enjoy it. Picasso said that children are natural-born artists. They need not understand art to enjoy it.”

First, it requires more time. Since we’re always in a hurry, we tend to scan paintings quickly, neatly pigeon-holing them into our pre-existing mental categories, before moving on. Abstract art is tougher to fit into categories.

“When we look at something, we look for the decisions the artist has made and we always feel something—a nervousness when a shape presses up against an edge, a calmness from horizontal bands, things like that,” says Dickson Schneider, professor of art at Cal State East Bay. “It is a very complex language that translates to experience rather than to story. People should give up their own preconditions about what they think art is and just look, learn, and enjoy.”

“Lots of people really relate to representational art—landscapes, figures,” says Oakland artist Judy Levit, 70. “They recognize something familiar and can become engaged more easily than with abstract art. Abstract art requires more participation. One woman said I have no idea what you’re doing but I love the colors.”

Events like Slow Art Day aim to encourage this contemplation. Inspired by the Slow Food movement—which encourages people to savor the preparation and quality of homemade food over the instant gratification of fast food—Slow Art day encourages people to drink in art at a more leisurely pace.

Oakland’s Gray Loft Gallery participated in Slow Art Day in April, with an event where guests gathered to view paintings for five to 10 minutes, then discussed over lunch how the artwork affected them. Gray Loft is up three flights of stairs in a converted artist warehouse in a mixed-use neighborhood in Oakland’s Jingletown district—where high-end artist lofts stand next to more modest houses along the Oakland Estuary. The walls are hung with enormous canvases by different Bay Area artists, depicting everything from geometric black-and-white chessboard patterns to a cacophony of yellow and blue spirals.

“The paintings in the show are all abstract, so there is a lot one can look at—color, line, swirls, splashes,” says Oakland photographer Jan Watten, 57, Gray Loft’s proprietor. “This all leaves itself open to interpretation and so by sitting and observing the work slowly you might find many different meanings. Or you might just enjoy the layers of color and how the artist applied the paint.”

Giving art time to settle is the most important thing. The human brain naturally seeks out order in chaos—it’s the reason that we’re so apt to imagine we see sheep or bunnies or faces in random cloud formations. But while many Bay Area abstract artists describe their work as a Rorschach test for the viewer, the object isn’t to play Where’s Waldo with the swirls and shapes. Instead, think about how those same swirls and shapes affect us emotionally.

“If someone comes in, I try not to have a preconceived idea about what they’re seeing,” says artist John Wood, 67, of Emeryville. Wood’s paintings—whether he’s painting giant leafy bushes of color or an explosion of spidery pink and gray veins—pack an emotional wallop. “Finding things in abstract work is not the way to do it. It’s more about color or emotion or vibration.”

In viewing an abstract painting, the human eye has a tendency not only to seek out details that remind it of real objects, but to fixate on those details to the exclusion of the rest of the piece. If you think you see a face in one corner of the painting, you’re not likely to think about the painting as a whole—but instead just look at that one corner. In creating his art, Wood works hard to avoid the snags that could trip up a viewer; he doesn’t sign the front of his paintings because the familiar forms of letters tend to distract the eye. Wood uses square canvases, rather than the more common rectangle, because the symmetry of the square encourages the viewer to weigh all parts of the painting equally.

But, most of all, it’s the slow, thoughtful contemplation that’s important.

“I hope that people will give my art a fair shot, not just a quick glance,” says Wood. “Stay for a while. People think my art is very emotional, but you won’t get that from a quick sweep, you have to spend some time with it.”

Saveri received her degrees in art and education before starting a career as a public school teacher in Oakland, and, although she never stopped loving art, it wasn’t until she discovered encaustics five years ago that she started devoting herself full time to working as an artist. Encaustic painting dates back to 100 A.D.; the ancient Egyptians used it to create lavish funeral portraits on mummies’ shrouds or coffins.

“This brought me back to art,” says Saveri, who demonstrates to studio visitors how she uses a heat gun to melt wax. “There’s something magical about it, because you put the wax down on the painting but you don’t know what it will be until it’s done. There’s an alchemy that happens with heat.”

It’s easy to learn, and anyone over the age of 9 can handle the equipment safely, says Saveri. And though kids enjoy the chance to work the heat gun, it’s the adults who most enjoy trying their hand at encaustics.

“Kids can do it, but adults over 45, they are my ideal clients,” says Saveri. “They’re the ones who really want to try encaustics—they’re the ones who want to re-find that energy in their lives.”

Mike Rosen-Molina is an East Bay writer and a longtime contributor to The Monthly.



Sightlines: Berkeley artist Francesca Saveri uses hot wax to create images like “Raw Beauty” (above). Photo by Don Felton.