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Artist Cullen Washington Jr. breaches the abstract

By Jonah Koslofsky

Section: Arts

March 31, 2017

Cullen Washington Jr. is interested in contrast. As the prolific professional artist summarized his career in a visit to Brandeis on Tuesday, March 28, a fixation on contrast emerged throughout. Washington started turning heads for his skills at age nine, making the front page of his local paper, beneath a headline on the escalating tensions of the Cold War. The contrast was clear: global stakes, side-by-side with a story about a “drawing wiz.” But Washington used his time on the Brandeis campus to explain exactly how his art continues to matter in the current political climate.

Washington began by showing how his work has evolved since he was a kid, starting with an image of a tiger he drew in his childhood followed by a piece from his time in graduate school, sketching complex images. It is here that we first start to see Washington’s fixation on contrast enter his work in his use of a grid to frame his work. The harsh and definite lines that mark Washington’s art continued after he abandoned sketching as a medium, with his more recent work utilizing tape and pieces of canvas arranged in a semi-pattern grid. His “journey into abstraction” also found his pieces getting larger and larger physically.

His creative process revolves around following his gut. One day, while making another piece using tape and textile material, Washington realized that the scraps that had collected on the floor of his studio had started to resemble a piece of their own. Washington described making a print of these scraps, breaking him into his current art form: the collagraph. This somewhat unintentional creation is Washington’s main focus these days. The collagraph is a groundbreaking new level of abstract.

“Abstraction is the theft of reality,” Washington declared. For him, his work allows the viewer to “turn him or herself away from identity.” At the end of the talk, a student asked Washington why a piece of his work always seemed to dangle off of the larger mass. Washington burst out laughing, remarking that he himself did not know; it just always looked right and acted as an act of rebellion against sticking to the bounds of the canvas (it seems Washington’s own artistic journey has been a similar rebellion). Washington described that many times, he will just sort of know that a piece he is working on is a “dud,” and he will repurpose it to find a new option. His work, beneath the esoteric symbolism, carries with it a sense of being “both objectness and objectless.”

But of everything conveyed by Washington, what struck me most was his confidence. During the lecture, he explained that his work often contains aspects that are invisible to the viewer—details on the back of a canvas or parts that are completely obscured by the rest of the piece. These details are only significant to one person, Washington, who is not creating to please the viewer but to express himself. Toward the end of the talk, he reiterated that the feedback he receives on unfinished work has no bearing on his creative process—only his eye and his gut dictate his work.

After the talk, I approached Washington to ask him how he could hold such confidence in himself and his work. His answer was simple: time. Keep working and doing what you love, and you’ll learn and get better and better at doing it. According to Washington, failure isn’t a piece that’s a dud or that doesn’t get into a gallery, but a lack of options and outlets to create. For an artist who deals in the abstract, that’s some great concrete advice.

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