Purge yourself, and be curious

Culture Visual Arts

A frequent misconception many people have with abstract art is that abstract artists work with chaos and lack the controlled style of more traditional artwork. “Abstract involves construction of a painting with visual fundamentals and disciplines,” says Bill Porteous, who is an abstract expressionist artist. “It begins with order and ends with order, whereas representation begins with chaos and ends with order,” says Porteous. “The word ‘abstract’ has a misunderstood definition. The word also means ‘to take from,’ and abstract is extracting from the natural world.” He points at a detailed drawing of a woman on the wall. “That is a good lie. It’s referring to something, it recalls what you know, and makes you feel you’re seeing something real. What’s real is what you’re seeing in front of you.”

Born in New York to jazz drum musician, William A. Porteous in 1946, Bill Porteous is known for his paintings spanning public, private, and corporate collections across Victoria and for teaching in the community for more than three decades.

Porteous is a collaborating artist in the D’Ambrosio Architecture + Urbanism project, providing artwork not meant for gallery showings, but for urban and architectural planning. He and Franc D’Ambrosio wished to turn unattractive scenery into a beautiful urban landscape, and the walls of construction sites were “an excellent opportunity to work at that scale,” says Porteous. After construction, Porteous collects boards, takes pictures, picks his favourite sections, and then turns the segments into unique collections of art. When new building holders show interest, Porteous slices the boards according to his pictures. The reconfigured pieces are then installed throughout buildings.

Porteous had little exposure to fine arts in his childhood education—only a single art class in high school, which was where his teacher discovered his talent. He then went on to complete an Associate of Arts degree at El Camino College in Torrance, Calif. There, he met two influential instructors: Andrew Fagan and Willie Suzuki. Suzuki arranged for Porteous to take third-year classes as a freshman. Porteous remembers that Suzuki asked students to draw an object upside down, making the object lose its identity. It was the art section of the El Camino library where Porteous was first exposed to abstract expressionism; however, he says he was into abstract art since day one and just didn’t know what it was yet. Learning figures and abstraction at El Camino College inspired him, but even with figures, he was already abstracting.

In the 1960s, which Porteous says was “the explosion of the genre,” Porteous completed a Bachelor and Masters of Fine Arts at the Otis Institute of Art in Los Angeles.

In 1974, Porteous came to Victoria to help found the now-closed Northwest Coast Institute of the Arts. There, he met the late Jack Wise, whose well-known Mandala series is held in part in UVic’s Legacy Art Gallery. Porteous established the Victoria College of Art with Wise, where he taught and developed design programs for 17 years. Porteous opened his own studio in 1994 and has also taught notably at Camosun College and UVic. His most recent involvement at UVic was as a guest lecturer in a German Expressionism class (GMST 355) taught by Professor Matthew Pollard, who is involved in Porteous’s Wednesday Abstraction Group.

For students interested in abstract expressionism, Porteous recommends several artists whose works are on display at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria: Gerhard Richter, Helen Frankenthaler, Guido Molinari, and Jack Bush. “The more real contact [with works of art in person], the better the interface,” he says. He also suggests aspiring artists view the works of Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman.

“Ad Reinhardt said meaning is derived from subject matter. That is, meanings are associated with people, place, and things. If we look at Mark Rothko’s paintings, they are deprived of people, place, and things; thus, abstract paintings are often regarded as meaningless. People say, ‘What the hell is this?’ to abstract, but apply that to landscape or still life. What does landscape mean?”

Porteous advises students to be proactive, saying, “They have to allow themselves to be curious about what’s possible.” He says, “Rather than searching the history or syllabus behind a painting, see them open minded. Viewers often have a grid of expectations that masks a painting.” Porteous also recommends students to be like a child, encounter paintings independently as an object. His works reflect his philosophy: an abstract play of shapes and colours, which makes people draw their own conclusions. “Purge yourself of everything that’s not you. Then you can begin to explore independently,” says Porteous.

What disappoints Porteous is the ignorance of people whose opinion precedes their experience. When he served on the Victoria Public Art Advisory Committee, the artists were the only ones unpaid and were not regarded equally as professionals alongside engineers, architects, and city staff. Porteous, who contributed nevertheless, says, “Our society has difficulty in placing a value in the artist’s role in public art.” He also finds problems in curriculum that simply instructs students, who have not established the foundation of visual art, to simply express themselves. “Before you let it go, you should have at least some understanding [of art],” says Porteous. “It is easy to say ‘You don’t need to learn drawing,’ but they are not accountable for the foundation, language, and the vision. You have to know what you are doing and experiment in relation to something, not just experiment.”

Porteous is driven by challenges to be even more sure of his decision to become an artist, since he finds producing art uplifting. “What moves me most in my life is the possibility of doing something that transcends me, how I did it, and who I am. It’s something that is eternal and impacts over time, acting as a celebration, embracing of everything human.”