Sunday, November 13, 2011

Artist's Statement V: "patterns and contexts and compositions...."

To return to Richard Foreman for a moment, on foreground/background and figure/ground: in "How to Write a Play," he continues with the idea from yesterday's quote, about bringing forward the little details we do not usually see, to wake up the audience. He explains that his staging might include a chair  perched at an odd angle, tied to an orange with string, so that we see beyond the expected chair-ness to the context, or what he calls the "composition," of the play.  He disrupts the course of action of his characters to change the way we see theater.  Foreman says the tying of the string or the unexpected ringing of a bell become necessary tools for him because "the audience has never been trained to be composition perceivers rather than object perceivers. When they look at theater they use daily-life and perceptual modes and so see things and not patterns and contexts and compositions."

So I am thinking, as I work on my artist statement, that there will be times when we can be "trained," as the audience is for Foreman's work,  to look for the "non-beautiful," the "patterns" and the "contexts." And I am hoping I can do that in this odalisque series as well, where I (mostly) take the bodies out of the studio and immerse them in something ... completely different.   But I wondered if there were more paintings that might allow us to see both figure and ground, to at least choose, if we want to, to see one rather than the other, rather like focusing the lens on a camera: past the tree branch to a kestrel hunting over the cornfield and even beyond that to the way the field curves (so we look at a "composition" instead of the one -- more obvious -- "object").

We can begin with two related panels; they are related, for me, because they both show the Virgin and Child in the same space with the donor (the person who commissioned and paid for the work) and they both are set before intriguing and detailed landscapes. The first panel is by Jan Van Eyck, and is called the "Rolin Madonna" (or sometimes "Chancellor Rodin's Madonna, Rolin being the donor)  and dates from 1437:

The three figures in the foreground (as well as the angel at the top right, just setting a crown on Mary's head) are more than enough for us to contemplate.  How interesting is it, then, that Van Eyck has chosen to give us so much more? The receding tile, the archways ... but that view, as well?

Van Eyck has balanced the Child's body and the Chancellor's praying hands nearly evenly here.  The two observers looking at the river, then the bridge, the boat, the island, the village to the left with its church steeple, all lead us to thinking of the whole composition; what do we perceive, here?

The second panel was painted fifty years later, by Hans Memling; we don't know Memling's name as well as we know Van Eyck's, but he was very successful in his lifetime. This is the Diptych of Martin van Newenhoven:

Here, too, there is an implied symmetry, or very near equality, between the two portraits. And the casements and the leaded windows and stained glass are all of a piece, suggesting the Virgin and Child and donor are in the same setting.  If we look over the main subjects' shoulders, though, in each frame, we can see manicured lawns, bushes and clear walkways, and a city in the distance. And, although it is difficult to see in reproduction, there is a convex mirror over the Virgin's right shoulder, reflecting two additional figures.  Both of these artists are asking us to stay long enough to see the full "creative act."

Now I want to move to the 1940's, and a close-up of a painting by Edward Hopper called "Nighthawks":

What is figure, and what ground, here? Do we see the customers as our principal points of interest, or is it the setting: the diner, the empty city street, the late hour?  It seems to me the context matters most, but my husband argues that it is all background, here; the usual foreground suspect is not here.

Last, let's look at a contemporary, but very similar, push-pull of figure/ground. We went to the opening of the new Seager Gray Gallery in Mill Valley, California last night. Donna Seager has moved her gallery from San Rafael and taken on a partner, Suzanne Gray McSweeney.  The space is perfect and the gallery chose to represent one work from each of their artists, and all the work is really powerful. Our favorite work there was by Jylian Gustlin, called "Rara Avis 53." I did not get a photograph of that painting, as the gallery was full, but I do have a similar work from the artist's website, titled "Rara Avis 11," which I think has many of the same features and which nicely illustrates the figure/ground debate: where do you look? What is the "context," the "pattern," the "composition" that Foreman would want you to see?

I think this work is simply stunning. The figure is captured from below, looking up, and is echoed in the column at the far right. And yet there is something that I also love about the wall "behind" the figure, the ground of drips and scratches. The body and the "wall" each come forward or recede for me, as I look; what about you?


  1. hi -

    found you on sketchbook project

    yes, its a beautiful modern take on the style, reminds me also of odilon redon - french painters approach, beautiful color and use of light as well.. quite luminous in quality, with a classical sensibility to it...

    thanks go well with your art!


  2. Thank you, Rosie, for your thoughtful comment! And I really appreciate the link you have made to Redon... I do think you're right! I may write about his art soon, because his work can be so lush and gorgeous and is also clearly a question of figure/ground. Thank you!