Ab­stract vinyl ex­pres­sion­ism


I was walk­ing home, the icy wind and bright sun­light at my back when I glanced up the hill to my left at Nancy’s house. Like so many in this vil­lage and in so many vil­lages and towns around our coast, her house was empty.

And it will be un­til sum­mer when she re­turns from the main­land. Then, from her front win­dows she will be able to feast her eyes on the deep blue of our com­pact cliff-lined har­bour and watch the daily boat traf­fic pass­ing out the nar­rows into the bay in the morn­ing and re­turn­ing in the evening, lower in the wa­ter, to the fish plant op­po­site.

That’s what she will be able to see then, but for the moment no one is look­ing out from those win­dows. For­tu­nately though, some­one is look­ing out for her house. Oth­er­wise, what I saw on the pure white vinyl front of the build­ing would not have hap­pened.

When I was younger, I spent a lot of time read­ing and look­ing at art books and when­ever I could, vis­it­ing gal­leries. I puz­zled over the ques­tion of ab­stract art like so many be­fore me. Over the years I have done a num­ber of paint­ings that do not look like any­thing you can see in na­ture, but which rep­re­sented to me a par­tic­u­lar feel­ing, a cer­tain pat­tern, an ar­ray of colours that I found mean­ing­ful.

If you be­lieve, as I do, that art is about com­mu­ni­ca­tion, what an artist hopes to do is trans­mit through his or her art a feel­ing, an im­pres­sion, a sen­sa­tion that, to the viewer is mean­ing­ful too. There is no guar­an­tee that the mean­ing for the viewer is the same one you felt when mak­ing the art. In fact that is not im­por­tant. What is im­por­tant is that they feel some­thing.

I al­ways thought it was un­fair that com­posers could write down a se­ries of notes on a sheet of paper and then, the sounds that the mu­si­cians cre­ated with their in­stru­ments did not need to re­late to any­thing in the known world. Ab­stract ex­pres­sion. All the while vis­ual artists were obliged to strug­gle with brush and paint to make the waves break­ing on the seashore they were try­ing to recre­ate on can­vas look as true to life as Mr. Ko­dak could do with film. And now dig­i­tally.

It’s true that the ear­li­est mu­si­cians with the prim­i­tive mu­si­cal in­stru­ments they were able to make, be­gan by spend­ing their time try­ing to im­i­tate the sounds of birds and an­i­mals, the wind and the wa­ter. Be­fore long though, they started to go ab­stract with their mu­sic, mak­ing sounds sim­ply to please; cre­at­ing rhythms for danc­ing, sing­ing and de­sign­ing great ar­chi­tec­ture for the ears. It con­tin­ues to this day, com­posers string­ing to­gether notes that ex­cite, pacify, evoke joy or sor­row, and some­times, in el­e­va­tors, dis­gust.

So why don’t vis­ual artists have the same lib­erty. The an­swer is, they do. And the pub­lic too has the lib­erty to say things like, “My three-year-old can do bet­ter” and walk away.

It seems to me that peo­ple in gen­eral can stand to hear ab­strac­tion, but they are far less keen to see it.

In the first in­stant I looked at Nancy’s house, just for the first in­stant, I thought ab­stract was what I was see­ing, and I liked it. But then I re­al­ized that al­though I was look­ing at a pleas­ing pat­tern of ab­stract shapes, they were there for a very spe­cific rea­son.

Be­cause Nancy’s house is perched above the har­bour on a bench of bedrock look­ing straight east, it is vul­ner­a­ble. When the north east­er­lies blow, the house is com­pletely ex­posed. In Sal­vage, the most vi­cious winds we get come out of the north­east. Sev­eral days af­ter Christ­mas that is what hap­pened. Pow­er­ful gusts in­ter­spersed with brief pauses and then bang, on they’d come again. Wicked wind with harm on it’s mind.

It’s the kind of wind that does real dam­age to vinyl sid­ing, which has be­come al­most the uni­ver­sal ex­te­rior wall cov­er­ing in our neck of the woods. A boon to home­own­ers sick to death of scrap­ing and paint­ing, vinyl looked like the ul­ti­mate cure when it first came on the mar­ket.

Still, you’ve got to put it on right and even if you do, the man­u­fac­tur­ers never fac­tored cli­mate change into their de­sign cal­cu­la­tions. Sal­vage has al­ways been a place of strong winds, but ev­ery year they are get­ting stronger. At the same time, the sid­ing sell­ers, al­ways look­ing to ex­pand their profit mar­gin, are pro­duc­ing an ev­er­flim­sier prod­uct.

The re­sult is that af­ter ev­ery big storm some houses have en­tire walls of vinyl stripped off, and the land wash is filled with shards of plas­tic. Or, if vig­i­lant home­own­ers or home­watch­ers for ab­sent home­own­ers are quick to act, af­ter the storm is over vil­lagers can emerge from their homes to find them­selves face to face with whole mu­rals of what you can only call ab­stract art.

Nail­ing what­ever pieces of scrap wood they can find across hor­i­zon­tal strips of vinyl at what­ever an­gle they can man­age at the peak of a ro­bust gale, peo­ple are in a rush. Keep­ing the vinyl on is more im­por­tant than the beauty of the fi­nal prod­uct, but the ur­gency of the in­stal­la­tion cre­ates a look of fresh­ness and spon­tane­ity. I am sur­prised this look has not yet found its way onto one of the hun­dreds of home im­prove­ment shows clog­ging the tele­vi­sion chan­nels.

The vinyl sid­ing man­u­fac­tur­ers prob­a­bly never thought of them­selves as pa­trons of the arts, but they are. They have cre­ated a new school: Ab­stract Vinyl Ex­pres­sion­ism.

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