science

The science behind abstract art perception

 Abstract art in a range of styles from scientists, artists and curators is displayed at the exhibit. Photo by the McPherson Eye Research Institute.

Chances are that when you look at an image or painting, your first thoughts try to parse out or describe what you are seeing.

Located on the 9th floor of the Wisconsin Institutes for Medical Research, the Mandelbaum and Albert Family Vision Gallery serves the McPherson Eye Research Institute and the UW community with free exhibits linking the science of vision to art. The gallery’s current exhibit, which is open daily from 8:30 am to 5:30 pm and runs through the end of May, is called Your Brain on Abstract Art.  

“Abstract art—when you actually look at it—gives you another way of looking at everything by not showing you anything in particular. It removes all the particulars and just shows you the general,” said retired UW-Madison chemist Rodney Schreiner, the exhibit’s curator. “If you’re trying to find patterns in the world, looking at the general is better than being overwhelmed by the specifics.”

The brain interprets visual information in two different ways. Through bottom up processing the brain takes parts of an image—like lines, edges, colors, and shading—and uses that information to come to an understanding of the whole image. Those features help the brain perceive a three-dimensional object from its two-dimensional representation on the retinas in the eyes. Likewise, in representational paintings artists take advantage of those features to portray the three-dimensional world within a two-dimensional work. 

In contrast, top down processing refers to how memories and emotions assign meaning to an image. While scientists, like psychologist Karen Schloss, study how and why colors affect people’s perceptions and emotions, artists attempt to tap into that uniquely subjective experience with their work in trying to evoke a response from their audience.

Representational art deliberately makes clear its subject, but Schreiner speculates that some of the barrier to engaging with abstract art comes from the frustration at not being able satisfy the desire to see “something.”

“When we look at something, the very first thing that our brain does is identify objects in space, and when you look at abstract art, it’s not there,” said Schreiner. “You can develop an appreciation for abstract art by noticing how you react, and if you look at enough abstract art you can associate the way you feel with a particular feature in the artwork.”

Your Brain on Abstract Art features work from Chuck Bauer, Brian Besch, Pamela Callahan, Sue Jachimiec, Sue Johnson, Sandra Peterson, Trent Miller, Judith, Mjaanes, Ben Orozco, and Rick Ross. Each of these artists has a connection to UW-Madison, and the arrangement of their work along is meant to highlight the contrast between their styles and use of color and draw attention to emotions that contrast evokes. Additionally, the titles of the artworks are displayed on folded-over cards to emphasize how cues from top down processing like specific words affect the experience of viewing and interpreting abstract art.

Schreiner also believes that the scientists rushing along this hallway on the way to their research labs could learn from their experience with this exhibit.

“I believe it’s helpful for scientists in particular to look at what they see and not see it immediately as what they think it is,” said Schreiner. “Artists do this, and I think scientists need to do it too, is to look at your observations and feel yourself observing these things.”

Following this exhibit, the Vision Gallery will feature the winners from the annual Cool Science Image Contest, which is currently still accepting submissions. 

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