In art school, the terms Positive Space and Negative Space are interchangeable for Figure and Ground, implicating that one aspect of the composition has more importance. Lessons in introductory studio classes challenge the student’s assumption or preconceived notion that the figure or object out-weighs the rest of the image, and to acknowledge that, although our preconceptions and biases urge us to search for the recognizable information, the entirety of the composition holds the real meaning. The spaces between and behind are meaningful. Perhaps the positive and negative are interchangeable. Perception is learned and can be shifted.
How does this age-old lesson from Color and Composition relate to contemporary life?
The Lyndon House Arts Center’s exhibition Figure Ground considers artworks by seven artists through the lens of the figure/ground art lesson as metaphor: Kevin Cole, William Downs, Phil Jasen, Susan Nees, Terry Rowlett, Kate Windley, and Sunkoo Yuh.
Phil Jasen often references Greek culture in his artwork with the intention of subverting the notion of the ideal figure. As one of the masterminds behind the shadow puppet experience “Lupita’s Revenge,” Jasen creates silhouettes strangely similar to the black bodies on Greek vases. Jasen explores the term “ADUMBRATE,” which means both to “represent in outline” or “indicate faintly” and “foreshadow or symbolize”.
William Downs’ drawings are simultaneously personal and universal. Dark fluid figures hold and protect naked vulnerable bodies, intertwined in an overwhelming mass, covering the compositions, blocking the viewer's access to the world beyond the surface of the paper. Downs’ black and white drawings seem to emerge from the subconscious. Downs’ reliance on the use of line in his artworks suggests an understanding of dichotomy: a simple line conveys a complex emotional subject matter.
Susan Nees has created images of women in tight constraints. Occasionally the figures are boxed in, with limbs entangled within their own structure. In other instances, they push across the imposed boundaries. The artist forms “figurative pieces out of abstract components.” She writes in her artist statement “Working with formal elements like shape, line and color, I work to generate an image that has an emotive presence while at the same time creating a figure that has a certain surreal structural credibility.”
Kate Windley has been incorporating medical equipment into her artwork since her son Leo was born 9 years ago. Armbands that typically identify bodies at birth, as well as during traumas involving hospitalization, appear to suggest a figure, even if no one is present. A medical bracelet can mark a disappearance at the time of death. Windley silkscreens images on canvas, repeating a pattern with overlapping images, much like the repetition she experiences caring for her son, who’s condition requires constant attention. Repetition also relates to the recurring reports of loss and tragedy heard during the past year as mortality rates soared. Faces of friends and family appear in Windley’s work, inspired by isolation and longing.
Terry Rowlett is known for paintings that place figures in landscapes. With poses and compositions taken from classical references, Rowlett addresses contemporary culture’s impact on the environment, and critiques the current approach to all that is “wild”.
Sunkoo Yuh teaches ceramics at the University of Georgia in Athens. His sculptures and drawings combine human and animal figures, with people, tigers, dragons, birds, and fish occupying equally important roles in the compositions. In these sometimes-towering pieces, one might expect the human figure to dominate. Yuh playfully surprises the viewer by diminishing the stature of man and enlarging the scale of a fish.
Kevin Cole’s “Living While Black I” and “Living While Black II” are large black and white images of a cut out figure of a man hung by his tie. The inspiration for these pieces come from a story Cole’s grandfather told him on his 18th birthday about a tree where black men dressed to vote were hung by their neckties. Cole’s figures are denied a presence due to hatred and misunderstanding, fear and a desire for power and control.