The art of Milly Martionou makes me smile, not just because her art is bristling with optimistic paroxysms of delight, but also, on a far more simple level, because the name of her artistic style tickles my proverbial funny bone. Just days ago I finished an article about Rachael Bingaman’s style of art, Abstract Realism, discussing the name as an oxymoron: two paired words that seem, initially, to contradict each other. Today I’m writing about Milly Martionou’s style of art, Abstract Impressionism, to say that this name is an apparent redundancy: a group of words that seem to unnecessarily repeat an idea. Leave it to the world of pictorial art to begin encroaching on the devices of the literary world.
I suggest that “abstract impressionism” is redundant largely because impressionism was, historically, art’s first step toward abstraction with the works of Édouard Manet, Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet and Georges Seurat, all of whom may very well have saved art from falling into obscurity when the camera began giving realistic portraits that made art seem archaic and as redundant as the phrase “abstract impressionism” seems to be now. Since photography was faster, cheaper, and—let’s be honest—more accurate with its images than painting would ever be (so far as capturing objective representations goes), the more courageous artists began to experiment with techniques in art that photography (at least in their time) would never be able to do: give an impression of an image as if seen in just a glance. With that, impressionism was born, and paintings became more abstract.
The redundant quality of “abstract impressionism” is just an initial impression, however, and it makes more sense than one might think. “Abstract impressionism is two things. First, it is a style of art that teeters on the somewhat broad line between impressionism and abstract expressionism. We’ve discussed impressionism, so what is abstract expressionism? It is a style of art that is meant to make the viewer a part of the painting. It does so by employing enormous canvasses—floor to ceiling size. Unless one of these paintings is displayed in a very large room, the viewer is forced to stand so close to the canvas as to be unable to view the whole at a glance; he or she must look over the details, unable to see the entire painting. So, as people are unable to examine their lives entirely, viewers are unable to see an abstract expressionist painting entirely. In addition, abstract expressionism removes any “main” image from the painting. There is no negative space; the entire canvas is the image. This has the effect of causing the viewers to look the entire canvas over, and, at the very least, on an unconscious level, look for an image—a central point—on which to rest their eyes when there is no such image. Like abstract expressionism, then, abstract impressionism uses large canvasses, but unlike abstract expressionism, it will have an image, however abstract it may be, because it is still impressionism.
As I said, abstract impressionism stands on the line between impressionism and abstract expressionism. A second characteristic is more of a technique than a style; it requires the artist to cover a canvas with small applications of paint with a brush, palette knife or some other tool in order to create the entire painting. In this regard, abstract impressionism has much in common with the impressionism of Georges Seurat—pointillism—who created with a vast array of tiny dots to fashion an image. The eye combines the dots into different colours and into the pictures in much the same way that our eyes interpret modern-day pixels on computer screens. You can see two of Seurat’s images below–click thumbnail to view larger image.
Ergo, abstract impressionism is like impressionism in that there is an image—however faintly expressed—-and that its techniques for execution are borrowed directly from impressionism. And, it is like abstract expressionism in that the canvasses are typically huge and that the image is abstracted so that a viewer can almost argue that there is no image at all. Almost.
I must emphasize also a personal distinction that I have observed between abstract impressionism and abstract expressionism: In examples of abstract expressionism, there is an element of randomness to the application of pigments: dripping paint, throwing paint, spilling paint—that sort of thing. Look at the work of Jackson Pollock and you will see. However, in abstract impressionism, there is, by necessity, a great deal of precision involved in the application of paint, and in this aspect especially does the work of Milly Martionou stand out.
Three of her paintings are presented below with detailed view for each. While there is a distinct clustering of paint nodes in certain areas of the canvasses, sometimes with multiple colours, it is still evident that each node is distinctly purposely placed where it is; the paint was not splattered. Such technique is perhaps no more time consuming that Jackson Pollock’s, but it is, nonetheless, an entirely different process.
Stepping back from Martionou’s art so that we can see the entire canvas, we see that there is, indeed, an image to behold, even if it is nothing more than a series of concentric circles or something equally as whimsical. It is in these paintings that the optimism of her art shines through, for in these, the simple presentation of circles in bold and gaily contrasted colours, offers viewers something of each person’s own childhood. The circles are not constructed in a simply way; they are meticulously made works of art, but their images are simple, joyous, fantastical impressions of glee, each made with painstakingly plotted plops of paint, uniform in size for pattern, but assiduously varied in size for substance.
There are other times that Martionou offers a landscape or seascape as in “Mykonos,” a painting of a Greek island, or of “Hydra Island,” another Greek island, seen below. Other than the fact that both images portray islands, however, the two images have nothing in common. “Hydra Island” gives viewers the faintest impression of a shoreline, likely in a bay, on the island. The waterline is visible, and is the horizon above the island and a bit of sky. Were it not for the title, I might point out, if it were titled “Number 31” like a Jackson Pollock piece, it could be argued that “Hydra Island” is a work of abstract expressionism—a large work of art with no apparent image, and perhaps, if you look closely, your imagination can impose an image onto the work. The fact that the title is what it is, however, tells us that there is a subject to view, and that gives us impressionism, just very abstract.
“Mykonos,” on the other hand, shows us this Greek island from a distance. We can see the land curving out of the water and stretching into the sky. Look closely at the very bottom of the canvas, however, and you can also see the ocean floor—the same colour (or colours) as the island itself. Viewers are separated from the island by a long distance filled with wave after wave of the wine waters of the Greek seas. The sky continues the wavy pattern from the sea, but offers us a series of colours that suggest a time of just before sunset, or just at sunrise. The depiction of the island is so abstracted by its simplification, however, that, once again, if it weren’t for the title that tells us to look for an image, it could be argued that this is a work of abstract expressionism and not abstract impressionism.
Martionou has also tried her hand at sylvan scenes on more than one occasion. Two of her “Forest in the City” images (seen below) demonstrate to viewers how closely related visually both the forest and the city can seem though the interpretations of impressionism. And, depending on your own comfort areas, these canvases can be either warm and inviting or cold and frightening; it depends on whether you focus on seeing the forest or the city.
Images closely related to her “Forest in the City” are her “Dreamscapes:” Rich, dark imagery that seem still somewhat sylvan and yet more and more abstract, as though Martionou is stretching her skills out as far as she is able and still find herself within the realm of abstract impressionism—avoiding the “other side,” abstract expressionism. So far does she explore and push the boundaries that her piece known as “Cosmic Energy” can no longer allow viewers to feel secure in what they are viewing, so far as style goes. We are forced to ask ourselves, “What does ‘cosmic energy’ look like? Did Martionou represent it or give us an impression?” It still employs Martionou’s wonted technique of pigment application, but does she present an image? If the answer is yes—if she is giving us a representation of energy, then we have impressionism. If the answer is no, then this image may fall into abstract expressionism, except that there is yet her application technique to consider. The boundaries begin to blur as Milly Martionou so thoroughly explores the confines of her chosen style of art.
So, where does Martionou leave us, then? To be honest, I doubt very much that her work will ever leave us. For an art form to entice so entirely as Martionou’s does, to have it evoke question after question about what we are actually seeing, to have it provoke us back again and again to make certain that what we have seen is indeed what we did see, this is the power that art has always had over humanity. That’s why the impressionists of old were compelled to find new ways of presenting art in light of the ever more impressive photography. That’s why art has continued to tumble over from incarnation to incarnation, style after style, technique after technique over a span of nearly two centuries. This is why we can be amazed by art. But to have that same evolution and exploration to take place within the single style of a single artist as it does with Milly Martionou—this is an overwhelming feat. One for which, Milly Martionou deserves are recognition and applause.
Read about Milly Martionou’s “Mykonos” exhibition.