The “Pygoyan Gap”- Identified Mental Time Gap Between Naturalistic and Abstract Painting


Rodney Pygoya Chang, M.A., M.S.Ed., Ph.D.
April 10, 2008


     For over 20 years as a digital artist I have avoided the genre of naturalistic imagery.  Why copy nature? I thought to myself.  Within the realm of the abstract was the challenge of starting from scratch.  Through partnership with the personal computer was the opportunity to visualize the formerly unseen, to unearth new art, to discover new vision. It has been a marvelous life experience to remain loyal to this calling to explore the abstract that is capable of being visualized through the digital medium.  I’ve had my work exhibited in museums, show opportunities scattered like buckshot over the decades.  But sales remain minimal, not sufficient to earn me a living. But that was never the primary motivation.  I felt confident profits would eventually come by pursuing excellence and discovery in the visual arts.  By making history in the emerging art medium, integral to the new century's digital cultural revolution.

     Turning 60 years of age triggered an immediate practical perspective on how to expend my present artistic life.  Maybe, I thought, I should start making what the market wants.  I always had confidence that if I choose to produce for its demand, I would be financially successful at it.  Suddenly at this mature milestone in life, there emerged the desire to gain success in the only criteria of my art efforts that I considered myself yet a failure.  To sell stuff. So I began a series of works with such an intent- to not just prove to myself that my works can be financially successful, but also to those around me who viewed me as a “starving artist” fanatic, fortunate to be buffered from the demands of real life by my day job as a dentist.

    My new works start with my photographs of beautiful Hawaii that are infused with personal expression through digital photo manipulation, then finally materialized as "output," in the form of oil-on-canvas paintings.  It was refreshing to discover that I do like these realistic landscapes as much as I like my routine abstract work.  I felt good about the results and comfortable with myself.   I'm so excited about this direction of my art that I now contemplate publishing another art book of my works, this one including “Nature” and “Abstract” in the titling.

    The start of my current digital nature series began with the profit motive.  But doing the lifelong rejected, the disregarded, and the undesirable has unexpectedly revealed new art psychological insight to me!

    I have commissioned painters to work for me since 1985.  Completed landscape oil paintings arrive in email to gain approval for shipping.   I have been showing them to people around me.  The subjects as experimental observers provide me subjective responses to the new visual stimuli (artworks). Those immediately available happen to be relatives and dental patients.  Through these initial and impromptu reactions,  I have discovered the following about ourselves as a species-

    For such attractive realistic landscape paintings, there is an INSTANT REACTION of art appreciation.  It is as if something in the psyche is triggered.  There is no hesitation of response.  The results so far has been as predictable as winning in poker with a loaded (card) deck.  Everybody loves my “new work.”  I get responses like “Now this is what I like;”  “This is your best work ever!”  Huh?  

     Then a predictable second  response follows, as captured in the remark, “It looks so realistic that it must have taken you a long time to complete.”  This is an indirect prying way to ask, "So how painstakingly long did it take to paint?"

     I have always known that fine craftsmanship necessitating tedious labor contributes to appreciation of art-making results. To do the time to craft well helps sell the work.  It seems collectors like to own art that was arduous to construct. No pain, no gain.  In essence they are paying not only for the piece, but also for the artist’s time and tedious labor to produce the product. Maybe this is one reason digital art is a tough sell.  It seems too easy to make.  I’ve personally adjusted to this prejudice towards the dubious art medium by dubbing myself a “digital painting designer,” as a replacement for my former label of  “digital artist.” I continue to prefer spending my creative time with inspiration for the sake of aesthetic exploration.  It is not selfishness with my creative time but my methodology for enhanced efficiency and increased production, as expected of an artist using high technology.  I turn over the captured digital imagery to professional painters, astute in replicating what’s captured in my digital visual data.  I pay for their labor to output my digital visions.  The collaboration materializes my virtual art for the brick n’ mortar world of objects, be it a painting, print, or sculpture. 

     But what’s new that I have discovered, now dabbling in landscape realism, is that there is a momentary pause of the viewer when looking at the abstract that isn’t present when peering at the realistic landscape artwork.  The time lapse of silence, before the utterance of a personal judgment, can be a mere second but as long as a few more seconds.  Call it introspection.  But I hypothesize that it is a mental confrontation with the unknown, a sudden challenge to have to decipher “What is it?” before the mind can then judge “Do I like it?”  These two imperative internal questions must be answered before the mind can leap to  “Do I want to live with it?” which in turn can lead to the conclusive “I want to buy it!”

     Why this gap of response –which I hereby dub the Pygoyan gap – in comparative viewer response time between the landscape and the abstract?  Here’s my take on this identified phenomenon in art perception and appreciation:

     We as humans have a built-in conditioning to appreciate naturalistic artwork.  We have evolved over millions of years in an environment and continue to live in nature.  Those who reside in a big city environment yearn for a vacation in “the country.”  It’s instinctive.  Might not our affinity for naturalistic artwork be, dare I say, inherited?  Genetic?  Maybe a part of what the great psychologist Carl Jung calls our shared “universal consciousness?”  With my new awareness of the existence of the Pygoyan gap, I now reconsider what it means when someone defensively says, “I know what I like” while viewing art that is dumbfounding.  I wonder if that person's sense of artistic taste is derived and actually quite impersonal, an artistic bias embedded in the origin of the species.

     All trained artists know that the building blocks of naturalistic imagery are hidden abstract forms.  For example a mountain can have a conical form, a leaf a triangular shape.  A massive tree trunk’s visual infrastructure is an upright rectangle.  Maybe looking at abstract work is not natural to our eyes.  We are not adapted to seeing the underpinnings of nature.  But dedicated looking by educating the eye through due diligence in practice and extended exposure to the arts can teach appreciation of such hidden elements of natural representation.

    But for most, the lay “masses,” representational artwork provides instant gratification.  That potentially skews sales and higher returns for realistic art.  There is no injustice here against abstract art.   It’s just the nature of the beast.

     A parting thought – what if I replace the idyllic paradisiacal landscape with a painting of less inviting scenery, such as the harsh southeastern New Mexican desert? Would this retard or even cancel out the Pygoyan gap effect?  Hmm, I wonder...

    This scientific curiosity may indeed lead to an intentionally ugly or menacing landscape series, definitely retarding or even canceling out its profitability. (Unless one loves the broiling inhospitable desert, crawling with scorpions, tarantulas, and rattlesnakes.)  Hmmm, inspiring thought to provoke me to later divorce my effort in amiable landscape imagery, comfortably rooted in Romanticism, and move on.


Side note: "Creativity" is the correlating of two or more things when they has never been associated before. Try it.  Fill in the blanks:  _______ and _______ can make/improve/ _______ by _______; or,  _____ is like ______ because...   Getting into realistic landscapes besides my regular abstract work did stir up the creative notion of the Pygoyan gap.

Life lesson: As a lifelong abstractionist, working on realistic landscapes provided an experimental  "confounding variable" that unexpectedly made my regular abstract work the "control group." This provided  heuristic insight that led to personal artistic growth.  Moral: Don't be afraid to explore outside your self-imposed boundaries!



Abstract, 1985



Abstract, 1991



Abstract, 1995



Abstract, 2000



Abstract, 2007




Landscape, 2008



Landscape, 2008

Print version    Further thoughts on the Pygoyan Gap

Comments by distinguished Prof. Herbert Franke, University of Munich

Lawyers Counter