Figure Ground Relations

Part I — Catcher’s Hollow: Feeding Station Launching Pad

The first view is of a wall; the wall is rectangular, flat, and painted. There are three square holes in the wall through which a wooden structure breaks from the other side. While the wall acts as ground for the painting, it is also a sculptural element, or figure, in its relation to the wooden structure behind.

The three square holes through the wall become figures at play with the painted pieces on the wall. A painted grey shape is covered with transparent packing tape. The grey is very close to the color of the floor. The tape runs onto the floor and forms a rectangle of shininess. The flat paint on the wall and the painted surface of the floor become ground to the shiny tape.

From here it is possible to see the green cable antenna fixed to the roof outside the window.

The wall stands in the center of the room like an oversized column. Moving around to the other side of the column reveals the wooden structure. It spreads from the floor through the column, and back to one of the walls that forms the room. It is an object supported by, and attached to, the room, but nevertheless a figure in the room. It is also a grid which supports another grid, affixed to it made of pieces cut from 19 bathtubs; the pieces sit together forming an awkward concave dish. As grid, this structure plays to the grids of the architecture seen through the windows; and as concave dish it plays to the green cable antenna that it faces.

Stuck onto the surface of the bathtubs is a white shape made of silicone caulking; over this is spread an orange painted shape spilling onto green. This green shape is papered and painted onto the floor and climbs up the column/wall. The green is a figure on the ground of the floor; it is also the ground or pedestal for the wooden structure/bathtub figure, which acts, in turn, as ground for the white silicone and orange painted shapes that it throws into space.

 The two lights mounted on the wall enter into this play between figure and ground. They are objects, while at the same time, the light they cast “is” or makes the wall as we see it. The wires feeding them run across the space carrying color and electricity. Their color jumps to the other color in the work. The electricity they carry comes from inside the walls of the building, the ground.

The viewer’s place in the work changes as her/his perception moves between an understanding of the building alternately as container, ground, and object. The viewer is at times a figure in the work and at times a consciousness quite separate from the site of the action. In the process of moving back and forth between these two positions, as experience of the work is combined with expectations of closure and notions of framing, the work begins to appear complete and as a static unity.

The wall with the mounted lights, the painted pieces, the holes in the walls, and the wooden/bathtub grid are all, at times, thrown forward as figures or objects in the room, performing an action that reaches into worlds of fiction and fantasy, even while they slip back into the mater of fact building and place of Withe de With.

This is a description of “Catcher’s Hollow” made in Withe de With, Rotterdam, The Netherlands.

Part II — Self Portrait

The painting is rectangular; it hangs on the wall and the appropriate viewing distance seems to be about two and a half feet. The first information to come is that the painting is a portrait. There is a figure looking out from thick dark brown space. It seems that one can see consciousness and life in his face and eyes. The figure is looking at the viewer and one is reminded of oneself.

The figure seems to emerge from the depths of the painting; but the line between the clothes of the body and the dark space behind is very difficult to find, impossible to find, and then at times very clear. When the line can’t be found, the whole painting seems to flatten and the figure becomes one with the dark background. For a time, the deep brown space disappears.

When seen as a flat thing, one’s attention is drawn to the painting as an object, or figure on the wall, and again to oneself standing in front of the painting. It makes sense to move closer in order to look closely at the surface. Attention is drawn to the fact of the paint on the taut plane of the canvas. The surface of the paint is shiny and cohesive – a singular entity; but it is also clear that there are many layers of paint stacked and mingled, so that it is difficult to decipher how this occurred. Viewed from up close, these mingled layers of paint move back and forth – sometimes seeming to be flat physical entities and at others seeming to exist in a shallow space whose size is linked to the scale of the brush strokes.

With attention focused on the fact of the paint, the figure in the center seems to be built of, or growing from, little dabs of lighter-colored paint. These little dabs are often bumpier spots or objects on the surface of the painting. They are little objects on the canvas while at the same time they seem to be the incorporeal light which illuminates the figure. The figure is a thing lost in the background, perhaps one and the same with the background, even while emerging as figure. The little dabs that serve to illuminate the figure, which allow us to see it, are themselves figures on the flat surface of the painting.

The image of the figure looking out at us, the consciousness we imagine behind the eyes, and the light moving through the space of the painting are all dramas that dissolve into the skin of shiny paint made up of many sculptured strokes. All of this is stretched over the rectangular-canvas-covered object on the wall that is the painting. So much happens while one stands in front of this static painting that it comes as a shock to realize that one has only taken a few steps forward and back, and to realize the physical stillness of the past moments.

This is a description of Rembrandt’s self portrait, seen in the Riljksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Jessica Stockholder 1993