Illuminating Thought: Imagining Reality

To begin to understand how we see it is perhaps useful to look at what it is that we invent as images from the experience of looking at the world around us. When asked recently why I painted pictures, my response was to say that I do so in order to see something that I have not seen before. I might have added that each image is also an attempt to make sense of the experience of all that I have seen.

From my perspective as a visual artist there is a certain irony in having to use words to communicate ideas about images, and I write as an individual who has spent some time looking at the appearances of things and trying to divine some meaning as to the nature of what I see.

One of the big challenges for an artist is how to make an illusion of space appear real, and by extension find a way to make real what is in essence an invention. This invention is the product of a complex mix of the desire to see and intention to make, born of a synthesis of all those experiences gained from living within the world around us, and at its best manifests itself in images and forms which challenge and enhance our comprehension. I believe that it is possible to invent with spatial arrangement which may be clearly defined and yet also open to interpretation and I will seek to illustrate how image makers have sought to explore these issues across time and cultures.

The single point perspective devised in the Renaissance1 serves to fix a point on the horizon to which all lines of sight converge. Fixing the edge of the image defines it as a window, or picture plane, onto the three-dimensional space beyond. Each point visible through the window gives a point in the picture, located at the intersection with the picture plane of the straight line joining it to the eye. We stand on one side of the window, the illusionary three-dimensional image on the other.

‘The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius’ (1486) Carlo Crivelli  Collection National Gallery, London

In the painting ‘The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius’ (1486, National Gallery, London) Carlo Crivelli appears to construct an image which demonstrates his knowledge of the new pictorial geometry of his time. The architecture reinforces the orderly recession of lines to their vanishing point on the horizon defining scale for forms as they recede from the picture plane. However, we may observe at the bottom of the painting a curious fruit and vegetable, which appear to have been painted quite intentionally as if they sit on the surface of the painting, and further up we may notice the tail of the peacock projecting into what appears to be the real space occupied by the viewer. Then there is a shaft of divine light emanating from the heavens at the top left, cutting a diagonal from the distant sky and passing at an improbably acute angle through a small opening in the foreground building to touch the head of the Virgin Mary. In my view, these are not the creations of an artist unaware of what he was doing. Rather, in seeking to play with the geometrical structure of a perspective which recedes back from the picture plane, it is also possible to create links with the real space of the viewer which challenges perceptions of where pictorial reality ends and real space begins.

An intriguing variation of this questioning of where the pictorial reality resides is to be found in the painting ‘Christ Mocked (The Crowning with Thorns)’ (1490-1500, National Gallery, London) by Hieronymus Bosch, where an oak leaf in the top right corner is painted as if the stem pierces the canvas, with the leaf resting on the picture’s surface. This is quite distinct and serves to both reinforce the identity of the image as painting and also to question its place within the viewer’s space.

To a certain extent we are now more familiar with many paintings disembodied from their original context. This is significant, for an image intended to be situated within a particular space could articulate spatial concerns taking into account the architecture within which it was located. This is evident in the development of painting in Venice, with the art of Bellini, Tintoretto, Carpaccio, Tiepolo and others still visible in their original settings.

In the Great Hall of the Palazzo Labia in Venice (1746-47) Giovanni Battista Tiepolo painted an entire room. Here, every surface of the wall is covered leaving you standing inside a painting. The room is bathed in a painted natural light, with the real light illuminating the painted walls from large windows which open onto the world outside. Yet approach and the trompe l’oeil images dissolve, the figures becomes wisps of paint barely legible, and the seemingly solid buildings melt into veils of colour, challenging our conception of where the illusionary world ends and real world begins.

There is a certain abstraction of space evident in the Neo Assyrian relief panels from the Palaces at Nineveh which lined the walls and were to be viewed cinematically. The carving is fine and detailed in shallow relief, with the bold silhouette of forms clearly defined against the ‘background’ space which both contains and connects them, with figures and animals drawn to the same scale appearing to occupy different locations in relation to depth within the picture plane.

In the scene depicting the dying lions, from ‘The Royal Lion Hunt’ (Assyrian c.645-635 BC Nineveh, North Palace, Room C, Panels 22-28 British Museum), three different approaches to describing space relative to the surface are invented. Toward the top of the stone panels a fine line is etched depicting the ground upon which a lioness rests; below this a lone lioness lies prone, her lifeless form defining the surface upon which she lays; and finally, a lion sits dying with blood pouring from its mouth, his form resting on the bottom edge of the panel, in this case defining the lower edge as ‘ground’. In one scene three different ways of defining ‘space’ in relation to picture plane are devised, a remarkable and believable spatial invention, and one in harmony with the material from which it is made and the architecture of the space for which it was originally conceived.

‘The Royal Lion Hunt’ (Assyrian c.645-635 BC Nineveh, North Palace, Room C, Panels 22-28 British Museum)

To enter Sainte-Chapelle, in Paris, (c.1240) we may ascend by way of a narrow spiral stairwell. This modest entry serves to enhance the spectacle that greets us as we enter the upper chapel and are immersed in a brilliance of colour. Light forms the image, the walls now replaced by the huge expanses of glass which soar upwards towards the heavens. In stained glass the meniscus between light and surface is rendered tangible, the glass serving as both container and revealer, a medium that defines an existence between interior and exterior space. Pigment and light are painted and melded together, each serving the other in translating their properties. Light illuminates from without; the painting on the glass, and the pigments included within it, serving to filter and sculpt its wavelength, with the space of the spectator becoming a painting of light in itself.

 Saint-Chapelle, Paris

The incorporation of light as element within the construction and reading of an image is evident in Japanese screen painting. While the temple structures are mostly open-plan, the larger spaces created are often comparatively dark. In this context the use of gold as a highly reflective surface enables the artist to create images which can project into the spaces they occupy, illuminating the rooms and rendering the images more legible. The process of painting whole wall surfaces as screens also reinforces the impression that you sit as a spectator within the painting itself.

Ryoanji-in, Kyoto

In Japanese art and architecture asymmetry is significant in defining notions of harmony and proportion. Initially deceptively simple in construction, tea house structures built from modest materials serve as windows onto the world within and as space from which to contemplate the world without. This may also be seen in the stone gardens of Ryoanji-in, Kyoto; no two views are the same requiring contemplation from many perspectives, and it is with time and memory that the space becomes a part of the world within which you exist. Asymmetry requires memory to make sense and encourages the viewer to make connections.

I would suggest that there needs to be a balance between that which is observed, the observer as artist and their ability to reveal the essence of that experience in a way which allows others to interpret what they see. In this way the form observed can escape the parochial and translate its meaning across time and cultures.

The Japanese have a concept of space defined in their term ‘ma’, which may be interpreted as that ‘space or interval which is necessary to give shape to the whole’.[i] This is not a passive sense of space as emptiness, but one in which space becomes a dynamic part of the world, having equal value to objects or forms. I have found this concept of space to be most constructive in composing my own work, for in opening out the picture plane that which is not surface can also be built with.

In seeking to invent in my own work with structures that appear three dimensional while retaining pictorial form I have considered the following; I have sought to work with structures which allow for spatial growth; the structure itself should define its own existence in space, and not be confined to a picture window illusion of space. By liberating the form and allowing it to grow within our perceived ‘real’ physical space, the play of light and shadow creates a further layer of reading, enhancing the perceptual and spatial ambiguities and offering a more intriguing and physical image to the viewer. As the image also exists within the ‘real’ space of the viewer it becomes more architectonic in its spatial implications, suggesting expansion beyond its physical boundaries and activating a more dynamic relationship with the ‘real’ space within which its exists.

By allowing the edges of each work to be defined by the elements from which it is composed, it is possible to move away from the notion that an image fills a predetermined picture window space. In seeking to question the boundaries of how the picture plane may be defined, the surface contained by each pictures’ edges may be viewed not only as an opening onto an illusion of space, but may also be read as a part of the real space of the viewer. The construction of these paintings, with their elevation away from the wall surface, allows the picture plane to become tangible and physical, while its pictorial properties render its location in real space open to interpretation.

‘Array’  2000  Nathan Cohen

I am also interested in inventing with images whose elements and the method of their composition may be quite simple, although in combination can generate visually complex forms which offer the possibility for a breadth of interpretation. In the piece ‘Array’ (2000), one element is combined three times, the monochromatic pattern evolved by exploring permutations of how each basic element may be subdivided. This has created an image which walks across the wall and defines its own boundaries in the process.

It is not necessary that someone knows this process of construction, although it is evident should anyone choose to look. It is far more important to me that each piece can serve as a catalyst for the imagination of others, for each individual brings their own perceptions and preoccupations to what they see. My intention is to create images which may be sufficiently intriguing in their form that they may offer others the possibility of questioning what they see.

In questioning what we see we must inevitably have recourse to our experience of the physical world around us. The pictorial offers us a way to explore these experiences and reinvent the world we see. While the picture plane may be viewed as a window onto an illusion of space, it is also the surface upon which spatial reality may be rebuilt. Illusion of depth may be perceived as being more than one plane sitting in front of or behind another. It may also be conceived of in such a way that a surface may appear to recede or advance in one area, but change its spatial position in another.

Our ‘picture windows’ are not confined to the flat of the wall or the canvas but may be seen in artefacts from around the world. The humble pot has been elevated to an art form by many cultures over the millennia and embraces the notion of the utilitarian finding form within the imagination to become a means of expression.

There is the hand and then the clay, which sits within the hand, is moulded, kneaded, pressed and coiled. The hand of the potter may leave its trace or be wiped clean, a slip replacing the bare clay, providing the ground for an image. The brush is dipped into the paint and a trace for the form begins; perhaps a geometric motif, recalling in abstracted form the essence of rain clouds or mountains, or images evocative of natural forms; a bird, a fish or a flower. The painters’ ground is not the flat of a canvas but the round of a globe, with an exterior which reveals itself as the pot is handled and carried. 

Seed Pot  Acoma Pueblo c.1980  Private collection.

The patterns which adorn the pots of the Mimbres and more contemporary Pueblo cultures of New Mexico are testimony to the power of invention and variety with which visual form may be developed. The distinctive black and white pottery of the Acoma people, some with bold designs in linear form, often represent in very abstract images the experiences of their makers in the world at large. The images may depict interpretations of natural forms and forces of nature, yet they are also readable in purely formal terms and engage the eye in a dynamic and stimulating way. Playing with our sense of figure and field, the images resonate as the pots are turned, the white spaces between the lines both supporting their structure and becoming one with it. The patterns often follow the form of the pot, reinforcing its volume, while at other times they slide upon the surface, suggestive of the pull of gravity upon the shapes they create as they follow the curves of the pot. These are images intended to be lived with, whether in this or the after life, and they move with us as we interact with them.

A Navajo weaver spoke of their activity thus:

‘Weaving is about our lives; a sacred gift given by the Holy Ones to give us something for the hand to do, something for the eye to see and something for the mind to hold.’ 3

Kuba cloth  c.1920  Private collection.

Kuba cloths from Central Africa are made in a variety of abstract patterns which twist and bend the space in complex and unpredictable ways. A combination of stitching and the creation of a ‘cut pile’ technique are employed, in which hundreds of individual fibres are threaded through the base ‘mbal’ cloth, a lengthy process which appears to allow for great spatial invention, with some patterns explored in a variety of permutations throughout a work. These form abstract motifs which may relate to aspects of Kuba world beliefs, with some referring to objects or forms represented in stylized ways. We can become absorbed, looking for rhythms within the pattern, surprised by a change here or a similarity there, the detail and variation drawing us into making a journey through the image. The stitching encourages the eye to wander across the textiles surface, with interlocking forms connected, sometimes by one, two or more lines. Pattern alters perception of the surface; the variation in dark and light, coupled with the fabric’s semi-relief, further develops this spatial invention and creates an animated surface which seems to find its own form, enhanced by the small inconsistencies in the cloth and the thread.

In my work I am looking to find a balance between the real world we live in and the world that may exist within an image. It is in seeking to find ways to link the two that a dialogue between the imagination and reality begins to take place.

I believe that a certain playfulness is important in determining the nature of the interaction with a visual or structured form. While there is an aesthetic in simplicity, when forms are repeated creating patterns or combined in such a way as to challenge interpretation a new dynamic unfolds resulting in images which are both intriguing and intellectually engaging. This playfulness can be developed overtly or subliminally, with the structure or physical construction of a work demanding visual dexterity in its comprehension while the spatial organisation of selected elements may also carry multiple possibilities for interpretation.

In the painting ‘Las Meniñas’ (1656) by Diego Velasquez  we encounter a conundrum in seeking to understand the orientation of the space and the elements depicted within the picture plane while attempting to reconcile their ‘existence’ with our own real world space. Many possible interpretations are suggested, and yet it is in the personal encounter we each have with this painting that the dynamic of seeing is re-enacted and the game of comprehension invoked. Could it be that Velasquez painted this work as if seen from the eyes of a child, the little Infanta who stands at the centre of this image? The notion of play and innocence is exquisitely balanced with the experience of knowing that may be gained with years, and yet the spatial paradox inherent within the painting’s construction is a great leveller, opening a door to peer behind the veneer of our preconceived notions of space and enabling us all to enjoy afresh the experience of seeing something as if for the first time.

Reflection is one way in which we can invent with the interplay between reality and illusion and the mirror presents a most intriguing device in this painting. We can see how Velazquez invents with its potential for pictorial invention. Once we notice the figure of the painter to the left we become aware that what we may be seeing is a reflection of the scene unfolding before us, which is reinforced by a partial view in the image of the rear of the canvas upon which this picture is painted. A problematic issue of spatial interpretation is developed with the rear mirror reflection of the royal couple, which also raises the question of the spectator’s location. Velazquez plays with a profound question of what is reality and illusion in this visual paradox and with such subtlety that it is only in the contemplation of this image over time that his insight into the nature of visual perception becomes apparent.

The issue of how the brain determines the difference between an object seen and its reflection in a mirror is one which may have preoccupied those who have studied the nature of visual perception from the neurobiological perspective. From the artist’s point of view, reflection of form offers another potential source for invention and one which challenges spatial perception. For if the picture plane can be defined spatially in a way which is more than just a window onto an imaginary space beyond, then it may offer new approaches to defining form as image.

If the picture plane itself is something that may be invented with in the creation of an image, it would seem reasonable to assume that it need not be visually conceived of as being flat. Inventing with the visual topology of the surface, while retaining its physical characteristic as a flat panel, has enabled me to create images which while they may initially appear to adopt certain spatial characteristics shift their reading over time.

‘Shifting Form’  2000  Nathan Cohen                             

 ‘Triaddic Form’ 2005 Nathan Cohen

In ‘Shifting Form’ (2000) and ‘Triaddic Form’ (2005) a real depth seems to exist, with the construction formed with light, dark and middle tones, which imply illuminated surfaces receding or advancing to create the impression of solid figures in space. This results in the form appearing to have a real physical depth while in reality it is all cut from a single flat panel. With further viewing inconsistencies in this spatial interpretation become apparent and we begin to notice that forms at one moment solid intersect with neighbouring structures in a way that may not be reconciled with conventional perceptions of depth and volume.

‘Big Black/White’  2000  Nathan Cohen

This is also apparent when working with pure black and white (‘Big Black/White’ 2000), with the sharp contrast causing the viewer to observe the implied depth within the construction. When white is used in the image an intriguing relationship develops between its form and the white wall on which it hangs. Consequently, the relationship between the piece and its wider surroundings is rendered more dynamic, as we begin to comprehend the work as not simply existing within the confines of its own boundaries, but also offering the suggestion for its continuing expansion into the space beyond.

By visually articulating the surface, and introducing an ambiguity as to direction of light source, great play can be made of inventing with spatial perception pictorially. If we also question the perceived orientation of the surfaces by the way in which they are painted questions may be raised with regard to what an image might be seen to be.

I am interested in creating images which play with expectations. By creating modules of elements which combine according to different ordering principles it becomes possible to create forms which would appear to be organized in one way, only to ‘resolve’ themselves in another. ‘Revolution’ (2001), develops this theme, with a breaking of symmetry evident in the way four modules interlock, such that three connect one way and the fourth another. Another approach to inventing with form plays with our capacity to ‘fill in’ what we do not see but anticipate should exist. (‘Open Form’ 2000)

‘Revolution’  2001  Nathan Cohen                                        

‘Open Form’  2000  Nathan Cohen

When inventing pictorially colour appears to work in a very different way to tone and it seems to elicit very different responses in individual preference and selection. The artist Paul Klee observed that: ‘colours are the most irrational elements in painting.’4

From the artists perspective this presents something of a dilemma, which results in the necessity to find a language of colour with which it may be possible to speak to all and yet which reflects the individual who invents with it.

Colour as pigment, the basis for paint, can vary in optical properties when combined with different binding medium, and this allows for invention in its application to making pictures. Certain pigments which are quite transparent in aqueous solution, or when ground with oil, may be more opaque when bound with casein or an acrylic base. Some pigments have larger grain sizes when ground than others also affecting their properties when used as paint. Artists may look for new colours to add to their palette in the desire to broaden the range of possibilities for creating images which reflect the rich variety of the observed world. But most fundamentally pigment is of the earth, derived from the clays, stone, minerals and organic matter upon which we walk and gaze.

Each artist will need to find their own palette which in turn will define the nature of the pictorial image created. Experience gained in experimentation with colour will inform choice in the selection process, and shape questions which may be asked about colour properties.

I am currently interested in exploring the spatial properties of ‘pure’ colours relative to each other and so choose not to mix colours before applying them to an image. For instance, I am curious how a blue in one context may seem to advance and in another area seem to recede, locating in a range of space which varies with relative proximity to other coloured areas. Whereas, in the tonal pieces white, grey and black may be interpreted as surfaces receiving varying intensities of light, albeit from multiple sources, colour appears to define light and space differently.

‘Crystal’  2002  Nathan Cohen                                           

Trail’  2000  Nathan Cohen

Then there are the reflective and translucent properties of colour which I find intriguing. Oil paint may be used opaquely, but it is its transparent properties which I wished to investigate in the piece titled ‘Trail’ (2000). Two groups of transparent colours are interwoven with the structure in such a way that where two overlap a third colour is generated, but where three colours overlap, in the relative centres of each group of squares, the area is rendered white.

An allusion to optical colour mixing is being made here, whereby the three optical primaries mix to form white and not the grey of pigment mixing. But there is also another visual reason for this construction, as it creates a dynamic interplay between the readings of the white elements on the painted surface in relation to the white of the wall behind. A certain spatial ambiguity occurs with the relative proximity of individual white elements appearing to shift, some advancing and others receding, raising the question of where the surface resides and what the construction’s spatial relationship to its surroundings might be.

The different ways in which I have been seeking to explore the ideas expressed here in my work prompts me to ask if it is possible that, by introducing paradoxical spatial construction into the composition of a pictorial image, it may elevate its significance in our consciousness, and by extension impart to it a function which goes to the heart of questioning how we perceive ‘real’ space to be.

I have many questions and I have learnt that, fractal like, the more I look the more there is to see. Perhaps these many questions may resolve into one unifying principal and all that may be seen are as facets of a larger whole, but I believe that in the process of the viewing of pictorial images and in the asking of each question, it is possible we may discover greater depths of understanding and at least be able to comprehend a little more the nature of what it is that we perceive.

Nathan Cohen © 2006

1. “A painting is the intersection of a visual pyramid at a given distance, with a fixed centre and a defined position of light, represented by art with lines and colours on a given surface.”

‘Della Pittura’ (‘On Painting’) Leon Battista Alberti 1436

The Science of Art  Martin Kemp (Yale University 1990) p.21

2.The Art of Japanese Joinery Kiyosi Seike (Weatherhill, New York 1980) p.16

3.Exhibition First Nation/Fine Weavers, Western Folklife Center, Nevada 1996

4.Paul Klee Painting Music Hajo Düchting (Prestel, London 1997) p.45

List of reproductions:

1.   ‘The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius’ (1486) Carlo Crivelli  Collection National Gallery, London

2.   ‘The Royal Lion Hunt’ (Assyrian c.645-635 BC Nineveh, North Palace, Room C, Panels 22-28 British Museum)

3.   Saint-Chapelle, Paris

4.   Ryoanji-in, Kyoto

5.   ‘Array’  2000  Nathan Cohen

6.   Seed Pot  Acoma Pueblo c.1980  Private collection.

7.   Kuba cloth  c.1920  Private collection.

8.   ‘Shifting Form’  2000  Nathan Cohen

9.   ‘Triaddic Form’ 2005 Nathan Cohen

10. ‘Big Black/White’  2000  Nathan Cohen

11. ‘Revolution’  2001  Nathan Cohen

12. ‘Open Form’  2000  Nathan Cohen

13. ‘Crystal’  2002  Nathan Cohen                                           

14. ‘Trail’  2000  Nathan Cohen