Abstraction and meaning

CHAPTER 3: Material as metaphor and symbol

Each of these artists have created powerful metaphorical associations through their use of specific materials or forms. Incorporating everyday objects (known as ”found” material) has been common since the early twentieth century. In the works by Meireles, Bruguera, and El Anatsui, such materials–tea bags, discarded metal liquor-bottle caps, pennies, communal wafers and bones–are multiplied so that their individual identities are subsumed into an overall abstract form when viewed from a distance. Yet the chosen materials also contribute to the work’s meaning and content, symbolizing political, economic, religious and social structures and entities. In the work of Eielson and Kim, form and content merge into specific metaphoric references concerning respectively, ancient Incan culture and skin as a signifier of race.

Quipus 58 B

Jorge Eielson
Lima, Peru, 1924 - 2006, Milan, Italy

Quipus 58 B
Canvas and acrylic
100.7 x 104.1 x 20.3 cm (39 5/8 x 41 x 8 in.)
Gift of John and Barbara Duncan, 1971

Nudos Que no son nudos Y nudos que sólo son Nudos Poet and visual artist Jorge Eielson was interested in exploring resonances between material, form, and communication. "Quipus 58 B" is from a series of paintings / constructions that feature knotted canvas inspired by Inca "quipus." Consisting of intricately knotted strings laced together, "quipus" conveyed to the Inca a wide range of information. Spanish colonization, however, eradicated the specialized knowledge required to interpret them. Eielson’s oversized and aestheticized knot evokes this loss of cultural memory while paying homage to Inca civilization. In the poem above Eielson wrote, “Knots / That are not knots / And knots that are only / Knots.”

Missão/Missões [Mission/Missions] (How to Build Cathedrals)

Cildo Meireles
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1948 -

Missão/Missões [Mission/Missions] (How to Build Cathedrals)
600,000 coins, 800 communion wafers, 2000 cattle bones, 80 paving stones, and black cloth
249.94 cm x 345.95 cm x 345.95 cm (98 3/8 in. x 136 3/16 in. x 136 3/16 in.)
Gift of the Peter Norton Family Foundation, 1998

Cildo Meireles’s installation was first commissioned for an exhibition about the history of the Jesuits in southern Brazil. The artist created a contemplative space that functions as a critique of Jesuit missions established during colonial times to contain the indigenous Tupi-Guaraní people and convert them to Catholicism. The work’s symbolic elements reveal the complicit relationship between material power (coins), spiritual power (communion wafers), and tragedy (bones), while the black shroud and overhead lighting evoke ideas of life and death. Meireles’ use of cattle bones references the importance of ranching within the region’s colonial economy. Yet the bones’ physical resemblance to the human femur also alludes to the human losses associated with forced acculturation.

This art object can not be displayed

El Anatsui
Anyako, Ghana, 1944 - , Anyako, Ghana

Aluminum and copper wire
365.76 cm x 495.3 cm (144 in. x 195 in.)
Gift of Jeanne and Michael Klein, 2015

"Seepage" is composed of thousands of flattened aluminum wrappers from Nigerian liquor bottle caps that the artist El Anatsui and his team of assistants tied together with twisted strands of copper wire. Its shimmering metal surface resembles a mosaic while its undulating form suggests a regal tapestry. The bold coloration and pattern also suggests traditional Kente textiles that are made by male weavers and traditionally used for religious and ceremonial occasions in Ghana, where Anatsui is from. Since 2002, Anatsui has been making these bottle-cap reliefs as a way of addressing the legacy of colonialism in Africa and the historic triangle trade, in which European countries imported alcohol into Africa in exchange for slaves, ivory, and gold. "Seepage" reminds us of the way that African people were treated as commodities or currency. This is one of very few double-sided bottle-cap works that Anatsui has ever made and the only one in a museum collection. This is the first time the Blanton has exhibited the red side of the relief.

Image credit:
Joan Mitchell
Rock Bottom, 1960-1961 (detail)
Oil on canvas
The Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin
Gift of Mari and James A. Michener, 1991