Dawn of Day, abstract oil painting by Chris Lyter

To be succinct, Chris Lyter is one of the finest abstract artists of our time. But for so many viewers, that’s just not enough information for someone to say on his or her own that Lyter is “a great artist.” I mean, how can you tell if abstract art is good? With naturalism or even realism, it’s quite simple to judge a good artist: if you believe that what you see on canvas is representative of what you might see in reality, then you know that the art is good. And, until you begin to examine the finer points of an artist’s work, you have a fairly reliable gauge. But you have no comparison of abstraction with reality, so how do you know if the abstract artist really knows what the artist is doing? Fortunately for us, Christopher Lyter has a diverse career from realism to more naturalism all the way to abstraction, so as we follow his work, we can follow his mastery of art as we move along with his styles of art.

Iimages can be clicked for larger slideshow views all through the article.

Before we do that, however, we first need to understand what, precisely, abstract art is. To be honest, abstract art is harder to deal with in our Western culture because, in order to appreciate it, you need to be able to understand your own feelings, and that skill that, sadly, is virtually lost to most Europeans and North Americans. Abstraction is the movement away from a clear representation of physical objects and recognizable images to exploring the relationship of form, texture and colour. It is in no way a solely modern concept; indeed, even ancient Egyptian art explores aspects of abstraction. It also became prevalent in medieval European art before the Renaissance began to dominate. But, in its 20th century reintroduction, as abstraction began to re-merge into our mind-set, it was likely too much too early for most viewers: an entire canvas painted red would likely appeal more to us now than it did in the 1950’s, and, as a result, our society has been frightened away from abstraction.

Secondly, we need to understand how abstraction comes about. For most cultures or artists on the move, it begins with either simplifying forms–people to stick figures, buildings to basic geometrical shapes, skylines to an amalgamation of various colours, and so on. It can also come by way of making objects more coarse and less clear by using dark outlines, allowing brush strokes to remain visible, by using less movement in terms of gradients from colour to colour, and at times, even allowing the naked canvas to peek out from behind brush strokes. This does not mean less care, but more aggression with canvas and pigment. As representation gives way and formlessness “takes shape,” as it were, the art becomes less “about” something and more “in tune” with something else—to wit, the viewer’s emotions.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s look at Lyter’s art with some detail and see what we can find in an exploration of his work, noting that, if we can agree that his representative work is good, then we can trust that his abstract work is equally good.

When you consider Lyter’s works, “Bluebirds” and “Ruby Throated II” it’s quite easy to see that there is well disciplined skill involved. It is on a line between naturalism and realism, largely for the vagueness of the background. There is no doubt about it: this is fine art, quality work and a great style to stick with if you want your entire audience to consist of thirteen-year-old girls who are obsessed with horses, telephones and pretty birdies. I don’t mean to belittle Lyter’s work in the least, but there is a limited appeal to topics such as this. But at the same time, he has a powerful sense of humour, and distorts reality just enough to bring it out.

Look for a moment at “Fish Tales.” The subject of this painting is the large (in terms of canvas area) fish. The people in the boat serve two purposes: They are there, first, to show us the “scale” of the fish (please pardon the pun), so that we are allowed to interpret it as being “whale sized,” as any fish in a good fish story would be. And if that is the case, the it looks like said fish is looking to breach the surface in order to gobble what looks to be a six-pack of beer dangling from the tree. This is a reasonable interpretation of the piece. However, the people and boat are there also to distort the viewers’ perceptions of depth, and I don’t mean the depth of the water, necessarily, but the depth of space between the fish and the people. Is the fish really whale sized and ten feet or so from the boat, or is it far in the foreground with some fifty feet between it and the people? There is no right answer. Lyter has purposely distorted our visual depth perception for the sake of the humour of this piece, and that makes it the first step toward abstraction.

The painting “Adrift” takes the next major step toward abstraction largely (but not entirely) because, this is not at all an image that a person could photograph. When you consider the size and number of waves on the water, and the dark (tenebrism) of most of the canvas that helps to dramatize the precise action, there is no way someone would be out in an aircraft to snap a photo. Even if it were a Search and Rescue chopper, it’s not likely that the people aboard would be thinking in terms of taking pictures. Further, the illumination is fascinating: It is certainly not the flood light of a chopper; it cannot be sunlight or starlight, which means it’s likely moon-glow, but whatever it is, it’s not quite illuminating the tiny lifeboat. So what is the subject of this work, the waves of the boat? Yes.

In abstract art, especially abstract expressionism, there is not supposed to be a subject of the painting, unless it is the whole work–the entire canvas. Lyter uses mild abstraction to get his viewers to examine the entire canvas looking for a ship or island or some other origin for this tiny craft, so the entire canvas, itself, becomes the subject . . . almost. One thing more here: emotion, feeling. We see the craft, we see the waves, we see the night and the mysterious illumination and there is an understood—very understated idea: disaster has struck, and in the viewer’s mind and gut is the sense of loss and even hopelessness, and the emotions are equally important in any form of art, but emphasized in abstract art.

These images takes us step by step from “Adrift” into complete abstraction as the subject melts away from prominence into a tarp, of sorts, for the painting itself becomes the focus, and the feeling associated with the use of colours and textures moves to the foreground. In “Journey’s End” we can just make out a seascape with a skyline and land on the horizon to the left, and just below the horizon on the right. However, had the title been less indicative of there being “something there,” or had it been left untitled, the interpretation of “what is there” may have been far less specific, or, at least, less uniform from person to person.

“North Country” has a similar scenario, except that it is still a bit more abstracted. It is only the vague, horizontal lines that allow us to see a skyline and in the foreground, perhaps a bog, perhaps a meadow, perhaps a lake. If the painting were set vertically, the painting could be considered entirely abstract: “What you see is what it is.” I suppose, however, that if we were to have a discussion of several viewers as to what emotions the painting evoked, the discussion would be interesting and not at all brief.

Regarding these two images, it seems to me that it is Lyter’s use of light that keeps them from falling into complete abstraction, but the titles also help with this to some degree. In “Safe Harbor,” once again we are offered a seascape with land on the horizon, but the only strong evidence for it being land is the speckled light that seems to indicate civilization. Without them, this image would, again, be entirely abstract. We are left with almost pure emotion. What may be interpreted as the sky reflecting in water, does not need to be seen as that; the “reflection” is not consistent enough. That which we see as “land,” especially in light of Lyter’s more abstract work, does not need to be seen as land at all. If it were untitled, we would be left with feelings: oppression, fear, drama, mourning and things like that, all of which are there whether the work is abstract or not. They are brought out, not by a subject, but by the use of colours and textures and how they line up with each viewer’s experiences and sensibilities.

That leaves us, for now, with “To the End of the Earth,” and once again, it is the circle of “light” and its apparent reflection that allows us to “see” a subject: we understand it to be the sun reflecting in water in front of what might be understood as a land mass, again, largely because it is horizontal, but the title also offers us something of this idea. It also helps us to highlight the “line” just right of centre that curves downward as though the water were falling off the end of the earth. It’s a potentially terrifying scene with that textured blackness to the lower right: how does one interpret that? What is it? What happens next? These are the questions that pop up in my mind. I read the colours of the “sky” from left to right, almost as a story. The red is the warning of pending doom. The blue/white is that sense you get when you realize you can’t change anything; fear is gone; your emotions simply subside. The darker blue to the right is the remnants of mystery. The magnificence of this piece, however, lies, NOT in what a viewer sees, but in what the viewer feels. I find it to be a perfect combination of terror and peace, and am simply perplexed by it.

What is left of Lyter’s work, at least as far as this article goes, is abstraction at its finest. I will discuss a few of them, but leave you with a few more.

“Eruption:” a burning canvas all on its own. In the centre we see what appears to be ejected material from a volcano or something, and yet, the heat from such an event would be evenly distributed. In this case, the left half of the canvas burns red, while the right side is cooler. Make of it what you will, but I see an emotional eruption, not a volcanic one. One psychologist daughter or mine tells me that failure to express emotion is akin to holding a beach ball underwater: once you let it go, it bursts out toward the person holding it, or toward that person’s friends who my be standing by, and that’s how I see this painting. The red is the immediate expression of those volatile emotions; the blue on the right, shows what happens after those emotions are expressed–an eruption of emotion.

I would love to sit around with a group of people discussing what they see in “Breaking Point” because I SEE a great deal. What I find so intriguing and striking about this image, though, is not what I see, and even not so much what I feel on an emotional level, but what I feel on a pseudo-physical level. This painting give me the sensation of moving at incredible speed such as what you might experience on the Starship Enterprise, or the Millennium Falcon. How Lyter can evoke such a sensation on canvas is something to explore in an article the length of this one, but focused solely on the once piece. I feel truly moved—pun intended.

So, yes, it may be difficult for a novice art enthusiast to see what it is about abstract art that might be considered “good” art, but with Lyter, we have two ways to examine the art for such an evaluation: 1) We have a close examination of his work overall. He does some excellent naturalistic work in nature, not just birds, but trees as well. Once we see what he can accomplish in the natural world, it easier to appreciate where he can take us in a more abstract world, and I, for one, am fully engaged. 2) We have the ability to see where Lyter takes us within ourselves. Seldom have I been so connected with my own emotions via art as I am with the work of Christopher Lyter, but he doesn’t just play with our emotions, but with our physical sense as well, and THAT is more that enough to make use see the brilliance of Lyter’s work: the provocative power of pigment.

Click any image for larger view in slideshow.


About the Writer:

A. J. Mittendorf is an avid art lover who has studied art history, art appreciation and art interpretation, for more than two decades. His Master’s degree is in Literature and his undergraduate degree is in English Education. As an educator, he enjoys writing for an online, international art magazine, Art, Artists, Artwork so he can use his educational background and skills in the field of art to help promote artists and help buyers select the art that is best for them.

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