Abstract art is as much about what you feel rather than merely what you see. But it is more than that. Abstract art imposes on you a personal interpretation of the work and, if it is a good painting, it will engage not only your eye but you will collaborate in the act of creation – of an idea, an emotion, a reflection. I have not been painting for long, but thoroughly enjoy different viewers reaching for diverse explanations for what often has little obvious link to the nature that might have inspired the work in the first place.

I remember as a very young child – before ever attending school – being looked after for a day in my Grandmother’s tiny flat in South Yarra, an inner suburb of Melbourne, and upsetting her because I had drawn a picture with pencil in one of her books. This is certainly a long-term memory and I have been unable to impose my adult mind on the experience of what it was I was creating – I simply do not know what was in my mind. Years later I saw that I had scribbled a complex design of lines generally in a circular motion and my adult mind could not fathom the idea I was trying to put on the page. Later, in primary school, I had a sure hand and at 11 years of age had a drawing of a sailing ship posted up in a shop in the town in a children’s art competition.

Art is a deep instinct for humans and takes many forms. Contemporary Australian Aboriginal art, for example, might speak to us on levels of appreciation of design, of colour and wonder. For the artist it is a cultural statement of time, land, belonging, stories, relationships and timelessness. The cultural response of a non-indigenous viewer is infused with personal experience, often urban, and like good abstract art, a painting of traditional spiritual and cultural themes might work in different, even superficial ways that have a separate validity.

I once objected to all graffiti, although always warmed to the political messages. (that is, to messages that I agreed with)! One that I do remember because it was on a railway bridge at Heidelberg in Melbourne on the way to the primary school where I spent about a year as a five year-old was “Pig-Iron Bob”, a reminder that the founder of the Liberal Party and its first Prime minister, Robert Menzies, had done a deal on pig iron exports with Japan in 1938. Menzies before World War 2 had also admired Hitler. The wharfies’ union [longshoremen, for my American readers] refused to load the iron onto ships in a protracted industrial dispute.

I am impatient with tagging, for it contributes nothing but a self-indulgent eyesore, in my opinion. I also find the large colourful tags that wreck our trains, viaducts and walls offensive. But I do admire much art on public walls, and street art is a valid art form. In Melbourne there have been campaigns to preserve some graffiti, the street art in laneways and thoroughfares. Throughout rural Australia, contemporary artists have painted wonderful, large-scale murals on wheat silos, that impel you to stop the car and take in the beauty of these works. Banksy and other street artists have taken graffiti to an art form with wit, artistic flair, implied social commentary, and sometimes sheer beauty in colour and design. Somewhere there I am drawing a line on aesthetics.

I admire the simplicity and design of this work in Perugia, on the wall of the steps to Piazza del Circo from the escalators descending from Rocca Paolina [Photo James McDonald 10 June 2017].

Often these works do reach into our emotional and subconscious with a declaration of the condition of our lives. The wall art illustrated here is too disturbing to be whimsical. In its sureness of line and evident haste lies a statement of the human condition, and you may make of it what you will. There is in it a primitive power that transcends its form. Yet, it is a figurative abstract that challenges the passerby and suggests suffering. Or a drug-induced psychosis? But what do I know! And is that important? For me it is art and would be snapped up if it were on canvas or board.

James McDonald
29 April 2020