Visual Perception, Abstraction and Invention: an Exploration

“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.” Nathan Cohen is an artist interested in how we see the world around us and how this can be altered through images and physical interaction with space and visual form. As well as exhibiting internationally for over 30 years, he set up the MA Art and Science at University of the Arts London (CSM) in 2011.

 

Fig.1: Monument Valley

Fig.1: Monument Valley

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.

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.

Fig.2 Nathan Cohen 'Planet' 1988 Acoma Sead Pot

Fig.2 Nathan Cohen ‘Planet’ 1988 Acoma Sead Pot

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. (1)

Abstraction may be viewed as a transformative process whereby forms are conceived that convey and articulate ideas. For some artists the initial inspiration may be observed forms, experiences or places, and for others the enquiry may begin with exploring formal relationships between artificially conceived spatial and structural elements, which are not intended to be a likeness of other forms, or a combination of these approaches. There may be a desire to express ideas that speak of experience of interaction and exploration of how our perception enables and challenges us in this endeavour. (2)

Fig.3 'Three Rivers' petroglyph site New  Mexico

Fig.3 ‘Three Rivers’ petroglyph site New Mexico

There is a long legacy of abstract imagery in the pictographs, paintings, pottery, weaving and artefacts to be found globally which continue to be profound sources of influence for artists today. These include many types of pattern including spiral, maze, grid, linear, diagonal and concentric forms arranged in varying combinations of complexity.

Fig.4 'Cactus' Kew Gardens

Fig.4 ‘Cactus’ Kew Gardens

Our fascination with symmetry and asymmetry is evident in the forms and structures we create and informs compositional choices applied to all aspects of manufacture. We find in natural forms evidence of ordering principles that excite our curiosity and we have developed a deeper understanding of structure inventing the Golden ratio, perspective, tessellation, Fibonacci sequence, impossible figures, nonlinear dynamics, n-dimensional and fractal geometries, to name a few. (3)

We may discover some of these forms and spatial constructions as we contemplate how to evolve our artwork. In doing so we encounter a rich tapestry of formal elements and ways to articulate them with which we can further our invention and better understand the forms and images we wish to create with intuition playing an important role in this process. (4)

Fig.5 - Carlo Crivelli: 'Annunciation with Saint Emidius' (National Gallery, London)

Fig.5 – Carlo Crivelli: ‘Annunciation with Saint Emidius’ 1486 (National Gallery, London)

This is an evolving process and one which can offer insight into how we perceive space. When Brunelleschi stepped back into the door whose frame outlined the view of the building he wished to represent, the fixing of the edge of the observable space defined it as a picture plane onto the three-dimensional space beyond, marking a moment where the framing element established a means to create a spatially measurable illusion of reality. However, it also defined a boundary between the real world of the viewer and that of the image and ensures our perception of what is depicted pictorially remains consciously an illusion.

We may take this invention for granted today and are familiar with looking at artworks that represent to us a likeness of the world we are familiar with in a way that is spatially convincing, allowing us to engage with the illusion of space as an extension of our real world reality.

So why would being concerned with the way an image is presented be significant and how might considering this question help us to better understand visual perception and advance pictorial invention?

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