The Progression of Abstraction

Technique Tuesday abstraction

What is it?

What is a gallery that specializes in Contemporary Realism doing writing about abstraction, you ask? Well here’s the thing– when people think of the term “abstract art,” most people specifically think of non-objective art. The two do have overlap, but the realm of abstraction is a lot more nuanced than just pure realism and pure non-objective art. The work that we show here at the gallery is nearly always, representational, or objective, meaning the artwork is “of” something. As you may remember, we’ve discussed the “spectrum” of realism on this blog before, and talked about some art being more hyperrealistic, some art more painterly, some very abstracted, and some non-objective. Non-objective art does not seek to portray anything that exists in reality; rather, it communicates purely on a visual level, using the elements and principles of art to create something aesthetically interesting. Other styles, like Hyperrealism and Photorealism, attempt to portray reality in its exactitude, or at least in the case of the latter, how it appears in photographs. But there is a whole world of art that also falls in between the two. Abstraction in art is any deliberate step away from portraying exact reality. Abstraction in objective art, or art that does seek to portray or represent something found in reality, involves some level of alteration, usually a kind of simplification of the object into its most essential shapes, colors, or lines. But enough of the talk, let’s start looking at visual examples!

Examples in art history:

If we look at the entire history of visual art, we can see that the prevalence of abstracted art is very high toward the beginning, slowly lessens to nearly none at all for many, many centuries, and then rockets back up in the 20th century. For a long time, the “goal” in the creation of art was either minimal abstraction or pure abstraction, depending on what was in vogue. In the post-modern world we inhabit now, a vast range of visual art styles are now accepted and encouraged. Let’s take a look at examples of abstraction through the years:

Abstraction, as a movement, didn’t officially begin until the early 1900s, however artists were unknowingly experimenting with the idea of “abstract art” centuries before. Artists were finding new and innovative ways to express themselves and their emotions without categorizing their work under the field of abstraction. Looking back at the artistic culture of Native Americans, it’s apparent that they began making pottery over 2,000 years ago. Certainly, over time, their decorations became more and more elaborate, lets examine the example shown above.

The specimen on the left (fig. 1) is a piece of pottery traced back to the Seminole Tribe of Florida, a tribe that can be traced back 12,000 years. The exact date of this specific example is unfortunately unknown so lets simply focus on the elaborate and abstracted details within this gorgeous piece of pottery. The characteristics of Native American pottery typically include animal or bird patterns, geometric patterns, and color schemes that may be polychromatic, black on cream, or black on black. The meanings behind these specific symbols remain secret to the tribe. However, their artistic choices share the qualities of abstraction in the way the bird is stylized and more geometric than an exact representation of the true anatomy of a bird.

Now lets turn our attention to 7th century China! China was ruled by the Tang Dynasty from 618-907 and a famous painter named Wang Mo created a “splashing ink style” of painting. Sadly, none of his work survived, but fast forward 53 years to 12th century China during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) a painter named Liang Kai reinvented Wang Mo’s “splashing ink” method. Utilizing this technique Kai created one of his most famous works, Immortal in Splashed Ink (fig. 2; see above). This technique resulted in a loose appearance in the ink and very little detail, in this piece we get the essence of a male figure, but a figure without facial detail, without an identity. What’s intriguing here with Mo, Kai (more of his work shown below), and the Native American’s approach is how these appear to be visionary, possibly unintentional choices that represent a movement that arose centuries later. Were they intentionally searching for new art techniques? Were they surrounded by a style that they found dull and wanted something different or did they simply feel it was just a way they could express themselves and the world around them?

There are many more early examples, but too many for us to discuss here, so time to turn our attention to some more modern examples!

TURNER Rain, Steam, and Speed

figure. 9 “Rain, Steam, and Speed” J.M.W. Turner; 1844; National Gallery of London

Joseph Mallor William Turner (J.M.W. Turner) was an extremely talented British artist who enrolled himself into the Royal Academy of Art Schools at a very young age. He exhibited his first watercolor at the Royal Academy at the age of 15. As his career progressed he began utilizing oils and created extremely rendered works, but as he got older his art became more representational. His famous work Rain, Steam, and Speed (fig. 9; see above) exemplifies Turner’s progressive abstracted style. Instead of trying to emulate reality he chose to express emotions by modifying colors and shapes. In this composition we can only translate familiar shapes such as a train or the bridge in the far left, but the rest of the composition needs to be deciphered.

Often when it comes to art, viewers search for the familiar and so often abstraction is motivated by realism therefore viewers sometimes find themselves asking..why? They ask why the artist chose to distort, vaguely represent, rearrange, or adapt a subject. Sometimes there’s an answer to that question and sometimes the intentions behind a work of art remain a mystery.

Above, we have two, highly familiar forms, but the way they’re arranged raises questions. On the left, William Kandinsky’s Circles in a Circle falls under the category of “geometric abstraction,” because he utilized one of the most basic shapes, the circle, to compile his composition. To viewers, the painting is deciphered as a combination of circles and lines, but Kandinsky valued circles because he believed that the circle had “cosmic significance.” He felt that specific colors and shapes triggered emotions and when those colors and shapes are combined they symbolize “harmony of the cosmos.” In his words; “The circle is the synthesis of the greatest opposition. It combines the concentric and the excentric in a single form, and in balance.” Kandinsky also wrote a letter in 1931 that said Circles in a Circle was “the first picture of [his] to bring the theme of circles to the foreground.”

While Kandinksy was searching for harmony and meaning behind colors and shapes, 29 years later Henri Matisse, who was considered the greatest colorist of the 20th century, used colors and patterns to deliberately make viewers uncomfortable. In addition to color, Matisse valued the human form. He often fragmented the figure in harsh ways, but he also worked in a curvilinear method. It all depended on the behavior and personality of the models he worked with. They essentially served as extensions of his own personal emotions. You can find some further examples of Matisse’s figurative work, from the same 1952 Blue Nude series below.

Click to view slideshow.

The most appealing aspects of abstraction is the way it has progressed over centuries and how so many artists found and are still finding a way to change the way we perceive ordinary objects and forms. Artists become inspired by those who came before and enhance those original ideas.

Certainly the timeline of abstraction expands much further than Henri Matisse, but lets examine how abstraction is being incorporated into work here at Principle Gallery!

Examples at Principle Gallery:

Study 15 People 72

figure. 16 “Study 15 People” 32×28, oil on board by Geoffrey Johnson – available at Principle Gallery

We are currently in the final days of Geoffrey Johnson’s Solo Exhibition therefore it’s the perfect time to discuss how Johnson exemplifies abstraction in his work.

Velvet Chair 72

figure. 17 “Velvet Chair” 18×14, oil on board by Geoffrey Johnson – available at Principle Gallery

A major staple in Johnson’s work is the way he gives his figures a ghostly presence. They’re depicted extremely thin and without an identity, which remains to be a major draw to his work. The human form is distorted and Johnson’s figures can be compared to the unique structure of the sculptures by Swiss sculptor, Alberto Giacometti.

Above, in a comparison of a 20th century Giacometti to a modern Geoffrey Johnson you can see the extreme similarity in the abstract rendering of the figures. Giacometti sculpted his figures as thin as he possibly could, he also did the same thing with his animal sculptures. Another strong comparison between the two is the presence of mystery and a skeletal impression.

Like Giacometti, Johnson has a serious interest in the human body, but he also finds interest in strong, unique architecture, that’s often found in New York and in other fast-paced cities. Both Giacometti and Johnson exhibit movement in their work, Giacometti in a more static manner while Johnson captures the way people move through cities. However, Johnson showcases movement in his cityscapes more so than in his interiors.

Parlor 72

figure. 23 “Parlor” 30×40, oil on board by Geoffrey Johnson – available at Principle Gallery

In Johnson’s interiors, not only are the figures abstracted, but the furniture is often distorted in a few different ways. As you can see in figures #17 and #23 a few pieces of furniture show signs of abstraction. In Velvet Chair the pink velvet chair in the left corner of the room has a stylized slant as does the coffee table on the right in the foreground. While Parlor shows signs in the 2 tables outside of the doorway and the one against the peach colored wall. The legs of the chair mirror the thin appearance of Johnson’s figures. These qualities make Geoffrey Johnson so prolific because he successfully blends the traits of realism and abstraction in his compositions. Viewers appreciate the sophisticated feeling of timelessness and melancholy that emerge from his work.

We hope you enjoyed this brief overview of the progression of abstraction despite us being a gallery that specializes in realism, but it’s always fun to think outside the box!

Geoffrey Johnson’s Solo Exhibition can be viewed in its entirety until this upcoming Tuesday, May 29th and if you can’t make it in time please view the exhibition through this link:

If you’re interested in receiving the Geoffrey Johnson Solo Exhibition digital catalog please email us: and we’ll gladly send it your way!


Technique Tuesday: Found Object Sculpture

What is it?

“Found object” art describes artwork that utilizes objects not conventionally designated as art supplies, and manipulates them, usually while keeping them still recognizable as their original form. In its early days, some found object sculptures did not even involve any manipulation of the object, but simply the artist designating that item, just as it was, as “art.” Throughout the history of found object art, it’s taken on a variety of manifestations, so let’s take a look!

Examples in art history:

Found object art really wasn’t something seen in the art world until the 20th century, and one of its very first incarnations was quite a controversial one. Dada, the avant-garde artistic movement that began about 1915 and flourished into the 1920’s, in many ways sought to challenge the conventional standards and definitions of art. One aspect of their movement was the promotion of the idea that anything could be art, and anyone could be an artist. Artists like Marcel Duchamp presented what he termed “readymade” sculptures, consisting of an object like a urinal or a bicycle wheel, mounted on some kind of pedestal, and labeled as “art.” It might go without saying that many art critics had conflicting responses to such a statement! Even after the age of Dada passed, found object artists continued to produce work throughout the 20th century, and their ranks included iconic names like Louise Nevelson, known for her found object “assemblages,” and Ai Weiwei, China’s most famous contemporary artist. Found objects have and continue to appear in a broad range of sculptures, from the more conceptual to some quite representational pieces.

(top row) Marcel Duchamp, “Bicycle Wheel”, 1916; Man Ray, “Object to Be Destroyed”, 1923; Pablo Picasso, “Bull’s Head”, 1942 — (bottom row) Louise Nevelson, “Royal Tide, Dawn”, 1960-64; Ai Weiwei, “Grapes”, 2011; Kyle Bean, “Which Came First”, 2011

Examples at Principle Gallery:

Sculpture is not something that we typically display much of at our Alexandria location, as our setup here is better suited in general toward displaying paintings. However, we came across a found object sculptor whose absolutely unique and charming work really caught our attention. When we were putting together an invitational figure show for February, David Lipson’s sculptures seemed as though they would be a fun and refreshingly different take on “figures” and we happily included him in the show. Check out the three sculptures that are part of this upcoming exhibition!

As you may be able to guess from their labels (originally old car dealership decals), these three delightful figures are called “Baxter,” “Mallory,” and “Ridley. Carefully and beautifully crafted from a variety of found objects, many of them vintage finds, these figures each reveal a stunning level of creativity and craftsmanship– on top of which, they just make you smile!

The “Bodies of Work” exhibition, which opens THIS COMING Friday, February 16th, contains a fantastic variety of figurative art. From highly photorealistic styles to gestural Impressionism, found object sculptures to Surrealist and Magical Realism paintings, oil on linen to mixed media on paper, there’s something in this show to fascinate every taste! If you’re in the area, please be sure to join us from 6:30 to 9 PM on Friday for the opening reception! And, as the digital preview of the show is available NOW, feel free to contact us at to receive a copy and get a sneak peek at this incredible collection of artworks!


Technique Tuesday: Magical Realism

Happy Tuesday! You may remember that not long ago we spent some time looking at the well-known movement called Surrealism. We’re going to be looking at a lesser-known “relative” of that movement today: Magical Realism.

What is it?

Magical Realism is a term that has been long-debated and is typically more frequently applied to literary rather than visual arts. Although glimpes of Magical Realism were seen in the art world prior to the invention of the term, it was first used by art critic Franz Roh in the late 1920’s to describe the changes that he was observing in art in the wake of Expressionism. The dawn of the 20th century, the upheaval of wars, the advancement of technology, and the changing world converged to produce several art movements that drifted further and further from strict Realism and into the realms of abstraction– for example, Expressionism, Dada, Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, and more. The changes noted by Franz Roh, however, indicated that some artists were “reverting” to Realism again, though with an eerie, mysterious twist. While Surrealism focused on heavily psychological subjects (dreams, the subconscious, etc.), Magical Realism showed a mostly-recognizable reality, but in a way that added a sense of mystery, unease, or magic to that reality. Unlike Surrealism’s jarring juxtapositions and unsettling, even shocking, imaginary concepts, Magical Realism presented a mostly-believable world, with just a hint of mystery. Often, Magical Realism paintings included a sense of stillness, gravity, and heightened sharpness or detail, while also incorporating fantastical elements. Let’s take a look at some examples.

Examples from art history:

First, let me clarify that as many artists crossed back and forth between genres, Magical Realism has become a bit ambiguous in the eyes of some art historians. Many of the artworks of the early 20th century contained elements that could include them in multiple art movements. Here are several examples of artworks that many art historians classify as Magical Realism. Do you agree?

(top row) George Tooker, “Government Bureau” ; Salvador Dali, “Portrait of Gala”; Pyke Koch, “Resting Somnambulist IV” (bottom row) Diego Rivera, “Sunflowers”; Andrew Wyeth, “Spring”

Examples at Principle Gallery:

We’ve got a fantastic figurative exhibition coming up this February entitled “Bodies of Work,” and we’re thrilled about the variety of work in the show, including the many pieces with elements of Magical Realism! Take a look at some of these sneak peeks from the exhibition, and see if you think you’d qualify them as Magical Realism, Surrealism, or something else altogether! Be sure to shoot us an email at to request a digital preview of the show as soon as it’s available, if you’d like to be among the first to see this beautiful collection of artworks!

Stephen Early, “And Into the Forest I Go”

Nadezda, “Revanche”

Mark R. Pugh, “A Secret and a Locked Door”

Mark R. Pugh, “Autoportraitism”

Mark R. Pugh, “Novaturient”

Anna Wypych, “Too Sweet to Be Serious”

Gavin Glakas & the Unveiling of His Portrait of Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe

Glakas Unveil

On Wednesday, January 10th, 2018 our artist Gavin Glakas unveiled his commissioned portrait of Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe at the Executive Mansion in Richmond. During the event, Gavin discussed his creative process, how we wanted to portray to the Governor, as well as a small hidden reference within the work. The artist began painting the piece in April of 2017 up until Friday, January 5th, 2018. Gavin certainly knows what it takes to create an exquisite work of art.

Glakas McAuliffe Portrait

Final Portrait of Governor Terry McAuliffe

Gavin wanted to successfully portray the Governor in the appropriate environment to convey his character. Therefore, the artist said: “When I first met Governor McAuliffe, he wanted to talk about issues – he wanted to talk about his work. So we decided to depict him in his office working, with open notebooks, paper strewn about and a pen lodged between his fingers.”

Governor McAuliffe is known for his hard work and his strong belief in politicians having some fun. As a result of his fun loving character Gavin chose to include a little hidden reference to one of Governor McAuliffe’s most memorable stunts… the time he wrestled an alligator. A young McAuliffe wrestled an 8 foot-long, 260 pound alligator for 3 minutes to assure a $15,000 contribution for President Jimmy Carter’s 1980 campaign. Thus, Gavin painted a little alligator on the Governor’s desk, which again confirms the artists close attention to detail.


This was the second major unveiling for the artist, in December of 2016, Gavin unveiled his portrait of Senator Harry Reid. The ceremony and portrait celebrated Senator Reid’s 30 years of service in office. Former Vice President Joe Biden and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were in attendance.


Portrait of Senator Harry Reid by Gavin Glakas

In addition, Gavin has been commissioned to paint portraits of other influential leaders and intellectuals. He was sought to do a portrait of Congressman, Ike Skelton, who sadly passed away in 2013. He also created portraits of Paul Berman, the Dean of George Washington University Law School and George J. Tenet, former Director of Central Intelligence.

We would like to congratulate Gavin on his huge accomplishment and honor. Now Governor McAuliffe’s legacy will remain preserved amongst the halls of the state Capitol. Congratulations Gavin!

If you would like to view more works by Gavin Glakas please click this link! If you have any questions or would like to have a piece commissioned by Gavin please don’t hesitate to contact the gallery.


Our Annual Small Works Exhibition

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Happy Holidays everyone! It’s hard to believe that we only have 1 full day left until Christmas! We’re sure everyone is feeling the last minute pressures of wrapping, family gatherings, and last minute shopping. Well first, lets all take a deep breath, go to a happy place, and talk about some art!

EARLY As Instincts Lie Dormant

“As Instinct Lies Dormant,” 19×20, oil on linen by Stephen Early – featured in Small Works 2017

Art can be a very personal and meaningful gift for a loved one. If can reflect their taste, unveil a particular memory, passions, or personality. Maybe you look at a piece of art and can’t help but be reminded of someone close to you. That’s what is so unique about out Annual Small Works exhibition. The exhibition contains works by a variety of artists, which focus on a variety of subjects. If someone you know loves figures, then Stephen Early may be an artists for them or maybe they love landscapes, then Bethanne Cople would be a spectacular choice. There truly is something for everyone featured in Small Works 2017 and we guarantee whoever you’re buying for will be absolutely thrilled!

COPLE Tho Tramping Neath a Winter's Sky

“Tho Tramping ‘Neath a Winter’s Sky,” 6×8, oil on paper by Bethanne Cople – featured in Small Works 2017

It has been such a delightful holiday season around here. We’ve been busy organizing exhibitions, receiving new works, and shipping pieces to their new homes. We had a spectacular time at our opening reception for Small Works, which took place on December 2nd. A variety of over 25 artists brought us over 100 paintings for the exhibition and everyone came out that Saturday afternoon to see what we were featuring this year.


Small Works Exhibition – 2017

Visitors enjoyed hot apple cider and tasty treats as they viewed the artwork. In addition, throughout the afternoon local artist Bethanne Cople presented a Live Painting Demonstration!


Artist Bethanne Cople painting her demo piece: “Meek Leaves Drop Yearly from Forest Trees”

Bethanne worked from two small studies surrounded by her brand new pieces she prepared solely for Small Works. She painted in increments and during her breaks she engaged with visitors, answering questions as well as taking pictures. She entertained everyone with her bubbly, enthusiastic, and positive spirit. She was an absolute delight to watch.


Guests watching Bethanne paint and some pulled out their sketchbooks to follow along

Bethanne Cople gave us the last painting demonstration of 2017! Throughout the year we had four live painting demonstrations and each one was sensational. In August we welcomed local artist Robert Liberace. In September we featured Philly based artist, Valerio D’Ospina. In October Utah based artist, Casey Childs came to see us, and lastly, but certainly not least Bethanne Cople in December! Each of these artists created stunning demo pieces for us and we’d like to say THANK YOU! We are beyond grateful for all of our artists, their hard work and determination to their craft.


From all of us here at the Principle Gallery, we wish you Happy Holidays and a very Happy New Year! We can’t wait to see what 2018 brings!

Thank You Card

Filed under: Fine Art