Space, A Human Problem

I’m on my last week of school and my drawing class is winding down with their final project. I spent most of the semester focusing on anatomy and the figure. My mistake.

I’m on my last week of school and my drawing class is winding down with their final project. I spent most of the semester focusing on anatomy and the figure. My mistake. My students are turning in work with figures and objects floating on empty white sheets of paper.

It’s a common condition for all art students in the early part of their education to focus on objects with no idea how to represent the space around it. Art professors normally refer to this as the figure/ground relationship. The “ground” by default becomes the environment, the room, the “background” or the where ever the object exists. But really this space could be anything, which is why artists get “writers block” when staring at a blank canvas. The possibilities are infinite and the page is merely a selection of space, the edges being an arbitrary boundary of whatever may potentially manifest.

We’ve had this problem for centuries, (actually millennia).

These are images from Lascaux, painted 17,000 years ago when we humans were living in caves and killing wild beasts with spears. It remains among the earliest known paintings ever. Beautifully rendered animals (scholars are able to identify at least 600 out of the 900 types of animals represented there) decorate the walls — Its pretty much the Sistine Chapel of the Stone Age. Yet despite these animated naturalistic beings, the environments are totally absent, the animals run weightless across bare rock walls.

All cultures have grappled with the ideas and techniques of how to represent space throughout human history.

Apparently we figured out how to represent depth in perspective during the Greco-Roman period, and either disregarded it or lost the knowledge during medieval times. Other scholars claim it was actually medieval muslim designers who through rendering of symbolic space in geometric patterns advanced a notion of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface. In either case it took two generations of Italian artists and architects to breakthrough the flat surface of the picture plane to arrive at liner perspective.

We see depth because we have two eyes separated by the bridge of our nose. That tiny distance allows us to see the same object from two different perspectives, and voila, your sense of depth. Ironic then that the big Renaissance breakthrough came when the architect, Filipo Brunelleschi, closed one eye, looked through a pinhole and figured out a method to (re)capture depth in two-dimensions.

Liner perspective became the dominant way space was represented in the West. It solved all of the spacial surface problems of two-dimension. This convention lasted for four centuries until we tired of its tedium, and rejected it in favor of Modern abstraction.

I just read a physicist who described Picasso’s Dora Maar (above) as a projection of the various facets of the three-dimensional woman onto a two-dimensional surface. An apt description, which I’m sure the art critic Clement Greenburg would have approved of. He thought Modernism was a pure art form, and a necessary devolution of Renaissance space — a return to the flat surface.

Modernism was reductive. And egocentric. Of course Picasso lost a dimension when painting women, he couldn’t get beyond his own one-dimensional misogyny.

The Chinese had a very different understanding of space. The human was not the center of the world but merely a spec in an unraveling universe. Landscape painting was the eminent from of representation. The human is meant to meander through the landscape, either vertically up cliff faces amidst mist, along a hanging scroll, or travel westerly across an expanse rolled out horizontally. You are not lead, although you may linger. To enjoy Chinese landscape is to wander along the way.

There is a fascinating documentary on PBS called the “Unmistaken Child” about a young Tibetan monk who was sent to find the reincarnation of his teacher in the hills of the Himalaya’s. It takes place between the years 2001-2005 (not some old mythic time period). One of the things the young monk does is sketch out a map based on his view of their monastery’s valley; a symbolic sacred space with references to the four directions, along with a little geography.

The monk’s sketch was sent on to an astrologer in Taiwan who then added the necessary details to find the Lama’s reincarnation. I won’t ruin the rest of the story. The point is, if you were a rock climber looking for a peak, this sketch would mean nothing to you, and if you were a monk looking for an incarnation of the Buddha, a geographic map with a compass would be useless.

Space is not a set of finite coordinates, its something mutable, and prone to our evolving perceptions. Galileo blew everyone’s minds in the 16th C when he said that the sun was actually at the center of our universe. Now, scientist don’t even believe we live in a universe, but actually a multiverse.

After 5000 years of civilization, technological revolutions that bring us the internet and our ability to transport our image, voice and ideas across space at the speed of light, we accept everything and agree on nothing. Contemporary artists really don’t know what space means any more and render it in a myriad different ways. Scientist continue to dig deeper and deeper into the fundamental principles underlie our fabric of space only to find more questions. (The Higgs Boson, aka the God particle, is actually empty!)

For the artist the question of space isn’t what it is, but what it means. And this is perhaps were we should leave this discussion for now, we are here, wherever that is.