abstract art, a systems view

Interpreting the Abstract: Pareidolia at Pluspace Coventry

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Pareidolia is a special case of apophenia: the experience of seeing patterns or connections in random or meaningless data. Having spent years in operational management I have been subject to numerous examples of apophenia, the most common being when a manager sees a dip in performance figures, interprets it as a sign of some lack at the individual level and decides to “take action,” a pep talk or a telling off, and then, when the stat’s show an ‘improvement’ the next day, ascribes the ‘change’ to his or her actions. In fact the data was random, both before and after the intervention. No change took place, just variation within a stable system.

With pareidolia a vague visual stimulus is perceived as something clear and distinct, like the horrifying face I always saw within the pattern and folds of my bedroom curtains when I was a child, or that image of Mother Teresa in a potato I was amused by this morning. Something more than the pattern is read-in, or projected. Jesus in the bacon dripping is a personal favourite. (For me, it’s so convincing I suspect it’s a hoax.)

In writing recently about the paintings of Lisa Denyer, I said that the viewer ‘completes’ the paintings in a similar way to “gazing into a fire and seeing one’s own imagined universe”, which I think is to encourage pareidolia. It’s not quite the same as seeing something that isn’t there, an hallucination,. If we distinguish, within the act of seeing, three separate actions: observation, interpretation and judgement, an hallucination takes place at the observation stage, whereas pareidolia is linked more to interpretation. Both seem to involve the imaginary, possibly in hallucination it is unconscious whereas in pareidolia it is conscious.

Ralph Anderson, Cut Out, Image by courtesy of the artist

Ralph Anderson, Cut Out 738, Image by courtesy of the artist

When I’m looking at Cut Out 738 by Ralph Anderson, I am not hallucinating the drips of paint that are also cut out of the ply wood of which the work is constructed, they are really there, and palpably so. Pareidolia kicks in when I  start to read the curved line toward bottom right as a letter “c” and the green diagonal brushstroke as a forward slash above which is an “i”, i over c, sounds like a vaguely Lacanian sign for something. I check it out with others who didn’t see it until I mentioned it. Perhaps there are degrees or levels of pareidolia, in which case this is low level, not Jesus-in-the-bacon-fat, full blown pareidolia. it’s possible that the artist intended for me to at least question whether these works are signs for something, or possibly even signs that signify only themselves.

In Louisa Chambers‘ painting  Balance 1, I am imagining some alchemy, the forms recalling, for me, laboratory instruments upon a table or work bench and the colours are fire. There’s a believable space in which some unknown drama is being enacted, unknown because it’s not quite figural enough to figure out what’s happening, other than the placement of colour-shapes, so I do what we all do in lieu of adequate information, I make stuff up, or rather I employ my powers of association in order to make sense of what I see.

Louisa Chambers, Balance I, 2013, acrylic on card, 16 x 22 cm. Image by courtesy of the artist. Image by courtesy of the artist

Louisa Chambers, Balance I, 2013, acrylic on card, 16 x 22 cm. Image by courtesy of the artist. Image by courtesy of the artist

David Manley‘s wonderful oval shaped black and white painting on aluminium, Martin Beck, seems impenetrable, I am struggling to read anything into the six semi circular shapes, subtle scuff markings and clearly drawn white lines, on a glossy black surface. Pareidoliac images form more easily where there is an abundance of indeterminate markings, in other words in works that are “painterly”, and even though here the black ground is far from unmodulated, it’s not painterly enough for pictures to suggest themselves. The painting is more object than image, more so even than Ralph Anderson’s “is it two, is it three dimensional?” piece. Knowing that it is from Manley’s Black North series, inspired by Scandinavian Noir doesn’t lead me to find images, other than the oval shape itself and the hardness of the decorated surface. The sense I have is of being confronted by something that is attempting to occupy my personal space, in fact I can be more specific now, it’s a shield, equally aggressive as it is defensive. And it’s only now that I realise that something similar to pareidolia is taking place after all.

Left: David Manley, Martin Beck. Right: Ralph Anderson, Cut Out 738, My snapshot

Left: David Manley, Martin Beck. Right: Ralph Anderson, Cut Out 738, My snapshot

With Phoebe Mitchell‘s Comfort, there being little formal structure and much painterly gesture, there’s ample opportunity for Pareidolia, almost an open invitation to read-in, not that much different than looking at Rorschach ink blots, if it weren’t for the fact that Mitchell’s work has many more times the beauty, and I don’t think that’s a projection. Similarly, in her other tiny painting here, and also in Rachael Macarthur‘s Untitled, what’s being presented is artfully vague enough to encourage the viewer to free-associate.

Phoebe Mitchell, Comfort, 2013, oil on board, 17 x 14cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

Phoebe Mitchell, Comfort, 2013, oil on board, 17 x 14cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

Should we distinguish between intended and unintended pareidolia? Is it part of an artists skill to direct the viewer to see what the artist wants, and to prevent ab-interpretations? (I am reminded of Adolph Gottlieb, in relation to his pictographs, if he discovered that one of his signs was actually existent in a past culture he would drop it from his repertoire.) However, sometimes an artist’s intention is for us to see things that s/he did not specifically intend, and I think that’s where Gottleib got to later on. The surrealist practice of decalcomania also seems like a good example of this attitude.

Left: Jack Foster, Untitled, Right: Phoebe Mitchel, Untitled and Comfort. My snapshot

Left: Jack Foster, Untitled, Right: Phoebe Mitchel, Untitled and Comfort. My snapshot

Jack Foster’s Untitled poses questions of interpretation that are more conceptual perhaps than others here. I experience far less free-association in pondering the inverted head on a green ground and I engage in a more linguistic attempt to interpret what is being presented. There’s little by way of free-association also in my own painting Hexagon Colour-Spread (BGRYMC), but the emphasis is more perceptual, the way the viewer constructs colour and shape is what’s being explored, the shifting gestalts also bringing attention to the pre-linguistic processes of perception.

Left: Louisa Chambers, Balance 1, Right: Andy Parkinson, Hexagon Colour-Spread (BGRYMC). My snapshot

Left: Louisa Chambers, Balance 1, Right: Andy Parkinson, Hexagon Colour-Spread (BGRYMC). My snapshot

The link between percept and memory construct is I think what is emphasised in the vulnerable little painting by Rachael MacArthur, shapes only just distinct enough to become forms but never enough to become anything specific. I like the pairing of this hesitant image with the more forceful and the largest painting here: Paradise (Yellow and Grey) by Ellie MacGarry, a painting that seems to exult in the perception of colour, showing how it changes as two colours cross, creating a third that is at the same time both and neither of the other two. Clashes of hue create lots of optical buzz and a lively space that keeps opening up and then bringing me back to the painting’s surface.  The drawing is simple and confident, looking like there was little room for error, as if the artist got just the one chance to place this series of lines, or this marvelous expanse of grey. (Speaking to her, I find out that I am wrong about this and that other versions exist underneath the surface.)

Left: Rachael MacArthur, Untitled, Right: Ellie MacGarry, Paradise (Yellow and Grey)

Left: Rachael MacArthur, Untitled, Right: Ellie MacGarry, Paradise (Yellow and Grey). My snapshot

Colour appears also to be a preoccupation of Frances Disley, in her three-dimensional painting Figure, especially in its power to dissolve form as much as to describe it, and to mislead even, creating events out of the absent shapes that are cut out of the surface and either discarded or added back on in a different place, along with cut-outs of digital prints or spray painted bits of foam. The piece has something theatrical about it, looking vaguely like an object from a science fiction set, Star Trek perhaps, a rock that might also be a creature, but that all along is clearly made from cardboard, or is it?

Frances Disley, Figure. Image by courtesy of the artist

Frances Disley, Figure, Image by courtesy of the artist

How we interpret abstract paintings, and the strangeness of sense-making, seems to be what Pluspace curator Matthew Macaulay is exploring by bringing together the work of these nine artists in the exhibition Pareidolia, which can be seen on Saturdays and Sundays at 50 Bishop Street, Coventry until 14 September.

7 Responses

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  1. Pareidolia is such a beautiful concept, in how the artist and the viewer complete the cycle.

    Abstract Oil Painter

    August 27, 2014 at 7:57 pm

    • Hi Diana, thanks for commenting, yes I like its emphasis on the action of the viewer. With Pareidolia, the cycle may begin and ends with the viewer, so could it be argued that the emphasis is perhaps too much on the viewer, potentially to the detriment of the artist’s skill?

      Andy Parkinson

      August 31, 2014 at 7:41 am

  2. I hadn’t heard about pareidolia before reading your article Andy. For me as a viewer it seems irresistible to find some ‘familiar’ points of reference in an abstract painting, but I sometimes feel this is almost mischievous. Curiously, when I have seen your colour spread paintings previously and read your script I have not done that. In this post, I did free associate with your painting and saw the scene as if looking up at from the inside of a Victorian glass-house with blooms against the light. A very interesting review!


    September 4, 2014 at 12:41 pm

  3. In May this year I went on a family holiday to Spain. When there I visited Dali’s art museum. When there something was triggered in my brain (I know it sounds ridiculous) and now see detailed faces in all of life’s creations. I have researched the internet and there is no evidence of this being experienced before. I do have photographic evidence of what I now see.
    I look forward to hearing from you.


    Dan Brain

    November 14, 2014 at 6:15 pm

  4. I’m not quite sure how to respond to each ones concepts of pareidolia but I do find the subject to be most interesting and I have had my own personal experiences with the visual aspect of it. Maybe you would look at my Facebook page in order to view some of my own creations.I’m not really sure if they do fall in to this category which I call “A Parallel, Pareidolia,Geographic,Iconographic,Transformation”

    Andre Melillo

    November 21, 2014 at 3:10 pm

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