So the question then becomes: what other forms for referentiality might abstraction offer beyond linguistic meaning?

To what, for example, do the exquisite works by the San Francisco based artist Prajakti Jayavant refer? Are they in fact caught in the infinite loop of their own self-referentiality? Made of cut, stitched, folded, creased, and stapled paper, her monochromatic painting- sculptures must certainly be said to signify something other than merely themselves. This need not mean, however, that we must play the associative game of discovering signs in them, allusions to some recognizable, realistic object ‘out there’ in the ‘real world.’

They are certainly self-contained, free of categorical, optical reference to say, the lapis lazuli ornaments worn by Egyptian nobles, or to the jade buttons of Confucian China. They are not building blocks of Victorian era brown stone houses or black pillows cushioning the heads of the dead entombed in eternal sleep.

But they do suggest stories, reflections on suffering, malady, beauty, and desire. They suggest inchoate, affective forces at work in the world that stir us, emotionally, to life. They are works in the sense of labor, a type of materialized thought that is bracketed between representation and interpretation, between which they resonate with feelings that mold, fold, and sculpt our responses to them.

They act on us, shape us, makes us what we literally are, what we concretely become when we experience them. They are records of events, of actions, and to experience them means that we must recreate them, by identifying with them, through interjecting their emotional tonalities. They offer us the chance to become empathic.

They are then, signs of ourselves, not of themselves. We are their reference; they signify us when we discover ourselves outside of the usual frames of reference to, and conventions of, optical realism. But they are every bit as real. They open up a literal dimension between the signifier and signified, in which we experience a discrepancy between optical recognition and the recognition of the emotional events that makes us who and what we are.

Abstract Connections conference, Tate Modern, London, UK, 2010 © Copyright Mark Bartlett 2010