Thursday, May 9, 2013

Negative Space

We began this week's Artists Lab* with a text, that of the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice Isaac and the things that were unsaid. With little explanatory text we were forced to determine the motivations and feelings through actions alone. The empty space in the story allows us to imagine Abraham's torment at being asked to sacrifice his son, through the experience each of us holds of a parental bond.

That led into an interesting discussion of negative space, whether used in a visual sense or in a written story. What do you leave unsaid? What do you allow your reader or viewer to add from their own experience? This is a release of control and a difficult lesson for me who always wants to explain too much.

Then I thought of my series on the traces of the former Lithuanian Jewish community. I had called it the Silence Speaks Loudly and when I spoke I often talked about negative space, what is defined by what isn’t there. Definition by absence. Traces of writing on a wall suggest a lost community. A coal chute, a gate to a tunnel, bottles in the earth speak to people hidden, stories buried. Perhaps I get there in my own way.

We were asked if we begin a painting with the positive space or the negative. Having just come from my studio where I was beginning a painting, I reflected on my process. I was working on a painting for the Artist’s Lab exhibition on Ruach, God’s breath. I had been taken with the sentence in Genesis of Ruach hovering on the water in the moment before God said, “Let there be light”. To me that is a metaphor for the creative force and I was interested in exploring that idea.

I had been thinking about what that moment would be like and had done a small painting as preparation (see image) prior to the one I was now working on. I wanted a larger canvas to expand on the sky which while dark held movement, an active sky of blue blacks, dark as midnight, but beginning to stir, about to birth light. The creative process is stirred before it happens. I considered whether that first light would be yellow or white and what form it would take. I decided it would be white and would resemble a Lucio Fontana canvas with a slash in the middle, a shocking gash in the heavens. White slices the darkness, just enough light to emit a glimmer so we can see God’s breath spreading out like wings, hovering on either side.

I had created the darkness, the inverse of God’s effort, and then used a wet brush to remove paint and wipe it away where I wanted to create the light and the breath. Light coming from dark, not too different than as told in Genesis, but of course first I had to create dark. So what is positive space and what is negative space? Darkness was as much of a presence as light. Oh how metaphorical!

Just as I was weighing what was what, we shifted gears to view the artwork of two artists Noma Bar and Tang Yau Hoong. Each examined the question of negative space. Interestingly the way they examined it also blurred the line between what is negative or positive space. It depends on your perspective and to see fully you must shift back and forth, negative becomes positive, positive, negative. Remember the classic face and goblet exercise? These two artists each provide a clever and whimsical expansion on that concept.

*The Jewish Artists’ Laboratory is an arts initiative through the Sabes Jewish Community Center featuring 17 artists exploring the theme of Text/Context/Subtext through study and art making. The project is funded through The Covenant Foundation and similar projects are being done in both Milwaukee and Madison. Artists explore how the theme of Text/Context/Subtext is relevant to Jews and non-Jews, to religious and non-religious, to the community and to the individual, to the artist and the non-artist.

 

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