'The world in a grain of sand'

Print edition : August 17, 2002

An exhibition of monotype prints reveals how pictorial space lends itself to the exploration of both the visual language and the content in diverse art worlds.

THE space is notoriously evasive as a formal strategy in art. It has accommodated perplexingly contradictory ways of seeing. For instance, it has entrapped the air and atmosphere of the seen world as in much of the post-Renaissance Western art. It has also played the key role as a 'metaphysical proposition' in the non-Western, Indian art*. It has neither confirmed nor denied the veracity of the real and the unreal by playing host to both. The virtual worlds enacted on flat computer monitors are as much a witness to this as the conventional picture planes of prints/paintings. The point is that the pictorial space continues to yield brilliant ways of exploring both the visual language and the content in diverse art worlds.

R.H. BUTLER

R.H. BUTLER

'Splash-Beasts', a recent exhibition of monotype prints by the young American artist R.H. Butler, which was held at the Eve Drewelow Gallery of the University of Iowa, is remarkable in the context of further fresh reflections on the issue. The show is striking for the ways in which he renders the apparent figure-ground relationship incidental to unfolding (what may be described, following William Blake, as) 'the world in a grain of sand'. At one level, as apparent representational motifs, the known planetary terrains and cosmic expanses delimit the extent and scope of this 'world' in the works: on one hand, the craters and the debris in the wake of, say, the entry of a meteor into the earth's atmosphere suggest a world that is either transformed or vaguely familiar. On the other hand, the direct reference to the other planetary surfaces through these motifs enlarges, albeit in a fictional manner, the known universe. However, the works operate at another level of non-representational, abstract forms as well. The figure in these works does not refer to a representational/non-representational image on the picture plane nor is the ground its conventional foil. Consider, for instance, Figure 1 with an apparent oval shaped pool that floats against the stark white of the paper. It enacts, suggestively, the subterranean depths of a still pond that has let lose unformed organisms in tiny blobs. In a way, it also entraps in a way the transient reflection of a starry night in a surging whirlpool.

Similarly, the recurring abstract shapes and motifs in works such as Figure 2-3 suggest diverse associations that typically include flowers, planets and extra-terrestrial bodies. However, these associations enact a pictorial ambiguity through a conflicting relationship between the image and its space. The amorphous figures simultaneously give form to the space that they inhabit and assert the neutrality of it as they defy gravity. In a couple of these works, including Figure 6 for instance, the recurring image of a frame that floats in mid-air is emblematic of the ways in which the artist reinforces this conflict. The space frames the motifs, which, in turn, define the space. The universe crosses over these deceptive borders that suggestively capture primordial forms and shapes. Depending on their relative position on the picture plane, the images even expand and contract this very framing device: they are either positioned off centre or placed asymmetrically allowing the background to take centrestage. Often, they are also dwarfed in scale against an expansive space.

R.H. BUTLER

R.H. BUTLER

The figure and the ground expand and contract, metaphorically, to yield a set of paradoxes in these 'painterly prints': buoyant abstract motifs make a dramatic landing in mid-air from nowhere as in Figure 1. As it expands, the motif suggests an as yet unformed body towards a self-definition. The innumerable blobs at its core suggest restless forms of life striving to take centrestage. Similarly, this amorphous world contracts and dissipates into its unspecified origins as the varying sizes of these blotches also suggest a receding movement.

THE strikingly abstract form of the figure with nothing but the stark white of the ground is left to fend for itself and in turn appears more to suck the world around than to emerge out of it. This overlap of the two counter-forces triggers diverse pictorial tensions. The ways in which the explosive, celebratory juxtapositions of colour are set against rigid, contemplative geometrical shapes are but some instances of these (Figure 6). Similarly, the motifs wind and unwind in a recurring circular movement simultaneously to take on the representational form of coiled reptiles and the abstract floral patterns (Figure 4-5).

R.H. BUTLER

R.H. BUTLER

The point is that Butler deploys a figure-ground relationship to yield ironical references to the space that is not typically a part of the familiar pictorial strategies. He resists in subtle ways the mediating role assigned to figure and ground in our view of the universe through art: the ground is not part of the figure on it, nor does it delimit the scale and location of the figure. It almost extends, although in fictional terms, the space of the known and the unknown. The works also reveal the ways in which the artist has come to grips with the dual interests of his sensibility: his preferred introspective inclinations on the one hand and his perceived celebratory character of the visual world on the other. In turn, they lend a recognisable conceptual focus to his instinctive method of work.

* For more details on these two aspects of the pictorial space refer Meyer Schapiro, "On Some Problems in the Semiotics of Visual Art: Field and Vehicle in Image-Signs" in Theory and Philosophy of Art: Style, Artist and Society (1994) and Geeta Kapur, Pictorial Space (1977/78). Further, the ways in which technology has altered the artists' perception of pictorial space is equally relevant in the context. One may consider, for instance, Akbar Padamsee's recent computer graphics in which the painter entraps a metaphysical moment that lies between a deceptively tranquil space on the one hand and the truant animated forms on the other. See Srinivasa Murthy K.S. "Painting with Light", Art India, Volume VI. Issue II (2001).

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