We discuss abstraction in my design class. One way to think about abstraction is to ask how much a representational element can be altered before it is no longer recognizable. What must remain intact visually in order for an object to retain its recognizable essence? And does it matter?
Artists have used symbols and partial or abstracted versions of objects for centuries. Sometimes the viewer knows what the symbols mean and sometimes only the artist has the key to the secret visual language imbued in her work. No matter how much an artist chooses to reveal, a picture is successful if it is integrated and compelling enough to hold the viewer's interest.
You may or may not recognize the Cuckoo Clock by the chains and ghost image of the pendulum swinging. But perhaps you will see in my picture of rough wall texture and chains a sense of... passing time? Orderliness? Constraint?
Even an image that doesn't give all the clues to its form tells a story. It's whatever story we want it to tell. A visual shape shifter.