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Posts Tagged ‘figure-ground’

Geometry

The clarity of what’s being depicted here may at first glance be satisfying. What have we here?  Answer: the basic shapes of two-dimensional geometry.  Square, circle, rectangle and triangle.  What a relief, you don’t have to work out some perceptual subtlety of modern art.

Well, actually you do.  It’s true, you’re seeing those four geometrical shapes.  But they are not on top, they are not resting on a surface, as they would be if the painting were about them.  What’s actually on top is the surface around them.  We see the square-circle-rectangle-triangle as the result of an act of omission.  The painter just didn’t get to those bits and let the “background” show through.  Just so happens, his negligence was overly careful.  You can verify this by looking at the “frame” that is the “background”—that splattered surface—and then it’s clear that the geometrical shapes floating in the middle are “nothing” but part of that “background.”

This foreground-background game engages the mind without ever getting boring.  You think you’re looking at the figure (foreground) and it turns out you’re actually looking at the ground (background) and you realize that they exist at the same time but your mind can’t focus on them simultaneously.  You get this flickering sensation in the brain, like a strobe light, and if you stay with it, you’ll get a buzz.

The artist, Harold Bauer, assures you that this is his game, by creating additional frames—frames within frames.  Just look at the edges of the painting. Where does this framing business end?  Seems to go on and on.  A mind game.

TopIllusion

In a later version of this process, the artist takes us into deeper uncertainties.  Notice how in this painting the shapes are not easily named.  No clear square, circle, rectangle and triangle here. The edges between foreground and background get fuzzy and torn looking.  The artist is working with the same aesthetic ideas as in the earlier painting, but here the game is richer, more engaging.

Both paintings were shown at the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago this spring.

http://ethicalhuman.org/

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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We don’t often see this format in painting, tall and skinny. This is the kind of proportion you are likely to get if you take a collage as your point of departure.  The collage that Elaine C. worked from was a small passage, about  1¼” x 3”,   isolated from a larger collage.  This proportion does not come in readymade frames.  No problem, there are other supports.  Artists have painted on board for centuries.  Elaine chose sanded, knot-free plywood.  I encourage this sort of departure from the “readymade” in my classes.

The colors in the collage were black and red with a snippet of green.  As she started painting, she planned on layering the paint, using under-painting.  The under-painting for the red was green.  But then the green became textural and drippy and too interesting to cover up.  The painting process took over and the original inspiration, the collage in black and red, had served its purpose and was surpassed.

The painting (48” x 20”) holds our attention because of its luminous colors, its texture and its play on the figure-ground question.

Let me expand on that last point a bit.  The question is, what’s on top of what?  The light green diamond at #1 is undoubtedly  the topmost element.  We see it that way because it is a clearly identifiable shape that we see in its entirety.  Everything else is fragmentary and our perception keeps shifting: is the green on top of the orange or the orange on top of the green?  We tend to read warm colors (orange in this case) as coming forward and cool colors (green) as receding.  But here we read the green as on top because of #5, which connects to the main orange mass (#4) and makes us read orange as the back ground.  This in itself creates tension, since we want to read the cool green as background.  But the orange keeps coming forward, not only because it’s a warm color, but also because of its shape:  it pushes its convex bays into the green at #3, #4 and #5.  Convex shapes invade and assert themselves as dominant.

But notice the little black square in the upper right at #6.  That was the last thing Elaine painted.  “It needs something up there,” she said.  Yes, it did.  And look what that little black square does.  It is an absolute—black!—and it’s the only element defined by clean straight edges.  You can’t ignore it.  Your eye keeps moving up to that corner.  After you’ve gone back and forth with the green-orange-foreground-background question for a while, that little black square throws you another mystery.  Is IT what’s behind all the color, is IT the ground?  Must be.  Since it’s cut off by the picture’s edge it looks like it’s part of something bigger.  But it’s disturbing, that the ultimate background in this painting is represented by such a tiny surface.   Disturbing, but not overwhelmingly so.  That’s just it: all this subtle tension in the midst of this luminous, glorious color and the captivating texture.

The next post will relate this painting to a 19th century painting at the Art Institute of Chicago.

For more on working from collages, go to “collage” under Categories.

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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