Surface Modulation

Deer Field, 4:54, single channel video, 2010, Jamie Hahn,

Surface Modulation: Chapter Three of Figure Ground Rhythm Thesis by Jamie Hahn 2010

Spring grass has a kind of gentle sway about it as wind caresses the thin, tapering blades. Peaking through the damaged brown, dry grass of winter, the new blades shine and glisten in fresh color. Not yet cut, the new blades reach high toward the light of the sun and create a bed of density from which all other growth compares.

The view from here is of a detailed foreground that blends at eye level into a middle ground of land. Framing from above is a telephone line, which serves as a reminder of the distance between myself and the background of willow trees layered in front of a low hill. The sun is permeating through the new leaves, illuminating their tonality as they contrast the branches from which they stem. The from here is of warmth. The sun casts light through the blades, the leaves, and the trees with new buds.

Surface a gust of movement, a contrasting moment of perception alters the visual to reveal the tangible as my apparent stillness recalls a passive engagement within this constancy. I am transfixed by the complexity of nature in this landscape as each moment eases into the next. The sun begins to set and a light breeze brings about a cooler interpretation of discernment amongst all things herein. Every blade, every branch, every plant sways in reaction to the atmosphere. My figure to ground rhythm is in constant flux as time reveals difference.

Surface color, texture, form. Surface a screen, a frame, an expression.

Wispy clouds of fog dance across the mountain, reminding me of my rhythmic interchange between self and air, skin and spatiality. I draw inspiration from looking out the window. Though simple in action, the result urges a desire to meditate with nature as though to bond myself further within a living space of moment to moment perception; moments that deepen a desire to integrate my soul with the changeability that the landscape provides. A constancy of interplay, movement directs a meaning within my memory and my identity of self within place, a location, a history. I reflect, I engage, I learn, I embrace. Anew is my attention to each moment as visual and tangible perception reveals a difference within a space of internal simplicity.

Surface an exterior repetition. Surface a rhythm of similarity.

Difference within similarity of an atmospheric landscape can surface within a moving image. Similar to the representations discussed thus far, artists using video, film, frame and screen extended their perceptual view of the landscape by positioning the resulting projection as an example of moment to moment difference. Defined as experimental or avante garde film makers, these interpreters of motion within nature were as transfixed by atmospheric alterations of form and the resulting affect on mood as the Tonalists. Engaging the viewer with subtlety, Larry Gottheim and Peter Hutton each employed the camera to record single, continuous shots of subtle difference within a frame of an otherwise steady landscape. By embracing the temporal structure of the medium, they were able to identify a similarity of form as it related to movement and shifting suggestions within nature. Considerations of spatiality and viewer entry into the frame developed as a formal element. The two dimensional design of the fixed frame structure (projection screen) was key in the process of contextualizing an overall concept.

One of the most influential writers on experimental film, Scott McDonald, draws comparisons between Gottheim, Hutton and the history of American landscape artists, in his book “The Garden in the Machine“. Acknowledging the use of time in moment to moment perception as illustrated in the moving format, McDonald explores the representation of nature and landscape in what he expresses as “minimalist tactics” of these two particular avante garde filmmakers. Gottheim’s work of the early 1970’s contrasted heavily against the prevailing contemporary mindset of visual perception in time within a film or cinematic frame. He pushed the boundary of expectation often driving his viewers into irritation or annoyance at how “boring or slow” the piece seemed to be. Almost photographic in its apparent stillness, the imagery was even more bold through its silence.

“Viewers have been trained to feel that landscape is not a legitimate subject for even a ten-minute film experience. This provides us with a measurement of how different our sensibilities are from those of the previous century. When I ask viewers after a screening of Gottheim’s Fog Line what they’ve just seen, frequent response is “Nothing!”. Without overt plot and movement, viewers are just virtually blind to subtlety.”

Larry Gottheim’s Fog Line, 1970, introduces simple complexity as the opening frame displays a dense, green rectangle. Nearly an abstraction, the piece evolves slowly, “What one sees and can identify depends on the relative thickness of the fog, which gradually clears but does not disappear”. What one sees also depends on how attentive a viewer is of the subtle motion. Gottheim presents a fixed viewpoint. The only changes occurring are the atmospheric elements shifting or lifting as they reveal forms hidden within. Trees become identifiable as do three “high-tension wires”. Within this framing device, Gottheim allows the lifting of the fog to make visible suggestive moments happening in this set duration of time. The wires offer linear sections that break the composition into thirds, each section offering a change to the viewer who hasn’t “spaced out” to the green, murky introduction. McDonald writes, “The wires are central to Gottheim’s thinking about the scene he depicts. Their compositional effect is to raise our consciousness of the upper and lower horizontal lines of the film frame and of the frame’s rigid rectangularity. While we usually tend to use the film frame as a window into the conventional illusion of three dimensional space, the lines mitigate against our penetration of the space, and draw attention to the surface. The dispersal of fog is gradual that one cannot be sure when changes are actually occurring in the image and when they are occurring in the mind.”

Bringing attention to the capabilities of the medium and of the visual perceptual system, Gottheim intentionally presents a perspective as interpreted by first, his selection, and second, the camera’s transformation of it. The grainy surface of the film is illuminated by the projection and the surface of the material becomes an integral element of the composition’s formal elements. By creating a kind of perspectival spatiality, he reveals layers of shifting consciousness between the screen, the image and an illusion of meaning therein. Transient visual perception meets meditative focus in this atmospheric landscape. What was once a vague entry of abstracted tonalities and subtle forms, the view becomes an active visual experience tuned to individual discernment as suggestive moments linger on the edge of believability.

Here we find the frame of surface between materiality, illusion, projection and image. In Peter Hutton’s films, as in Fog Line, movement within a landscape is subtle and gradual. This modulation allows a very dramatic and intense representation of what moment-to-moment perception actually looks like and perhaps more importantly, what it feels like. Hutton is especially interested in tuning into the viewers mind through their senses. Through “spatial and temporal compositions” he allows “a revelation of the motion of the world to speak directly to the viewers mind”. Directing his work to this state, something of a meditative state akin to the Tonalists, he positions or re-positions the subject of the film to be a subject of the viewer’s own sense of introspection. Infused with qualities of light and atmosphere, his fundamental gesture directs the following in Landscape for Manon, 1987, as McDonald writes,

“An unusual perceptual process develops in these landscapes. In nearly every instance, the landscape seems first like a still photograph. It is only if and when one accepts this apparent stillness that a subtler form of motion begins to tease the eye and mind, and we realize that what looked to be still is actually a part of a much larger order of motion: the cloud masses are gradually, relentlessly shifting through the space defined by the frame; the subtleties of the composition are continually evolving to reveal an order much greater than the rectangular world represented by the camera.”

By extending perception from a visual systematic response to an internal reflection of introspection and self awareness, both Hutton and Gottheim embrace a sense of “the transformative”. Each illuminate the screen with moving atmospheres in a frame of landscape. In likeness to the Tonalists, their illusive depictions direct an internal destination.

Within this transient dialog between screen, illusion and introspection, it becomes evident that movement or modulation, occurs cyclically. In his book Movement as Meaning, Daniel Barnett enters a discourse in how movement is meaningful in avante garde film and other moving imagery. He suggests that as a surface modulates it shifts perception from a maker’s perspective, to what the camera frames and represents, to the projection frame and the illusory surface of the screen, and then, to the internal psychological frame of reflection. In consideration of the composition, Barnett states, “Pictorial movement within the overall design offers rhythms to shift our attention as the eye moves and revisits elements, making subsequent comparisons to represent a dialogue between ourselves and the composition. It’s as if the surface of the image becomes a semi-silvered mirror as our mind dialogues with itself, contemplating the relationships between what is seen and how it feels.”

Within this perceptual shifting, a tension arises, drawing us “from a depicted place in the world to the place we are in the moment, and then, to a contemplation of the comparison between the two.” Now we can see how the figure to ground rhythm occurs in time, between the viewer and the projected image, the moment between difference and similarity, and exterior surface to the internal reflection of contemplation.

Thesis Bibliography: Chapter Four

Barnett, Daniel. Movement as Meaning: in Experimental Film. Rodopi BV, Amsterdam-NY, 2008

McDonald, Scott. The Garden and the Machine. University of California Press, 2001.

Spielmann, Yvonne. Video the Reflexive Medium. MIT Press, 2008.Save


Tonal Expression

Interior Repetitions: II, 9:32, Jamie Hahn, 2017, still from single channel video
Interior Repetitions: II, 9:32, Jamie Hahn, 2017, still from single channel video

Tonal Expression: Chapter Three of Figure Ground Rhythm Thesis by Jamie Hahn 2010

Low light, nearly dusk, the bland grey sky presents a limitation on the familiarity of forms in the view from here. A tension exists between the inside perspective through the blinds and the quickly, darkening exterior of pine trees and grassy foreground. Within this low tonality, large shapes contrast heavily against the details. All in view is of low chroma. It is a rather expected view of nature after a snow filled winter. The grass is pale and brown. The pine tree is weathered. The brush is raw as it awaits new foliage. Time and light are escaping quickly.

With focus, I can see dry, brown leaves appear to emerge from being embedded in grass, pressed upon by the layers of white mass. Now free, they are wedged too deep to flee from their resting place. Catching my eye in this edge of darkness is their movement. Though entrenched with the blades of grass, almost as if one new formation, they blend and flicker at the will of the wind. Raw forms surface as the shape is caught in a push and pull between remaining light, the speed of the air and an apparent stillness that sets this scene for contrast, and for difference. Lightness is passing, details begin to fade. A contemplative reflection centers my focus on what is seen and how I feel. Within this twilight a reverie has surfaced.

Experientially, my figure within this ground has merged an idea of self or reflection thereof with nature and a landscape. This pairing references concepts developed in representational motifs of not only Monet’s late work, but also of a brief American art movement which occurred from 1880-1910. Prior to this time frame, American artists of the early to late nineteenth century created landscapes of grandeur and drama with panoramic vistas, bold lighting against sharp contrasting details. Figures within were often small as they were metaphorically linked to human simplicity within this grandiose of nature, of the sublime and of God’s creation. Hudson River School painters such as Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Cole, and Frederic Edwin Church among others, represented the culture of the strength put upon the American landscape-one of creation, discovery and awe. Art historian Barbara Novak describes this age in her book “Nature and Culture“, in which “the idea of God in Nature was rendered by landscape painters who believed, along with the culture at large, that the glory of God as shown through America’s natural riches, was proof of the nation’s providential destiny; a reflection of the golden era of idealism”.

Entrenched with cultural identity and progressive embracement of all ideas of science, religion and place, the art of landscape grew into a new representation of “the truth of nature”. Within this realm, paintings became a pictorial entry for a collective mission of unification of every American.  Also supporting this ideal were the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Their reflections greatly impacted societal development and eventually helped to form considerations of nature in an altogether unified, yet, personal manner. Merging scientific detailed focus with a poetic, expressive reflection of an individual experience with nature, these artists and writers professed a new understanding of self reflexivity as it related to identity. Their works directed a kind of transition for the following generation of artists who “stubbornly” sought a deeper intensity of personalization within nature. The new generation “confronted nature as a private and extremely personal experience”.

Little was known or even recognized of this art movement in America until more than halfway through the twentieth century. Considered a “neglected” era, historians and curators of one particular exhibition held in 1972 finally appropriately honored artists such as Thomas Dewing, Edward Steichen, James McNeil Whistler, George Inness and John H. Twatchtman as Tonalists. Entitled “The Color of Mood“, the exhibition was curated by Wanda M. Corn. The accompanying catalog is one of the few written documents focused on what is now known as Tonalism. In the foreword, F. Lanier Graham, curator of M. H. De Young Memorial Museum, states,
“The world of the Tonalists was unique. In their special corner of subjective reality, scientific fact was overshadowed by poetic truth. Withdrawing from the hard edges of industrialization and the visual pollution of an urbanizing cityscape, they worked within the quietude of silent days and moonlit nights. Their subjects dwell in a distant border-state of consciousness, where motion has been suspended and energetic activity has evaporated into ethereal meditation. With perception as vaporous as a fog of colored feeling, they rendered images as tremulous as the murmuring vibrations of mood.”

Drawing from Romanticism, and neglecting Impressionism’s scientific view of nature, the artists created landscape motifs of self-reflection. Mesmerized by fog and other atmospheric delights, they worked upon a variety of surfaces integrating the paint, the canvas, the film and the photographic paper to illuminate moments of tranquility. This infusion of mood was typically dominated by a gradation of color, a tonal diffusion and a kind of translucence. The setting of light and objects related to one another within “an envelope of atmosphere”. Often blurring and confusing spatial relationships, the landscape became one of temporality, suggesting a shift from visual accuracy to an internal reflection of the moment in which the piece was being studied.

Painter and photographer Edward Steichen sought to transform this sense of time in to his “elusive, transient imagery”. His work rendered a pictoriality of his own private emotions,

“Because I found nature most beautiful in twilight and moonlight, all my efforts were directed toward finding a way of interpreting such moments. By taking a streetcar out to the end of the line and walking a short distance, I could find a few wood lots. These became my stamping grounds, especially during autumn, winter, and early spring. They were particularly appealing on gray or misty days, or very late in the afternoon and at twilight. Under those conditions the woods had moods and the moods aroused emotional reactions that I tried to render in my work”.

Steichen was a leader in developing photography as an art of expression. He often combined printing processes to create unique prints that could not be duplicated. The compositions montaged negatives, layered gum bichromate, and mixed toned platinum papers. While incredibly time-consuming, “His richly toned, evocative photographs reflected the yearning in the early years of the twentieth century to escape from the crass materialism and rationality of the everyday world into a space of quiet meditation”.

This kind of pictorial photography became known as Pictorialism. Photographers sought to redefine cultural understanding of an otherwise technological framing device. Photography was then gaining popularity to any average American who could as Kodak claimed, “Press the button, we’ll do the rest”. The Tonalist photographers or Pictorialists, rebelled and began to use the camera as a tool as any other painter would use a brush. By embracing and creating new methods of “making photographs”, their representations of nature appeared to be softened, illuminated by the glowing light of the atmosphere. Uninterested in sharp contrasting uses of light, these artist-photographers embraced the nuance of indistinctness “drawing attention to suggestive shadows and employing light as form” to evoke moods and feelings.

While the Tonalism period lasted for thirty years, its impact evolved to affect art making far into the twentieth century: from abstract expressionism to color field painting and later, experimental cinema and the transformative medium of video. When the exhibit, “Color of Mood” first recognized the movement, the curators acknowledged how the sentiment of expression from an individual reaction to nature was still at play in the consciousness of the twentieth century. Despite a lack in text, research has resurfaced in a new volume entitled “Tonalism”, a five hundred page recognition set to be in print this year, 2010, a hundred years after the end of this delicate, yet incredibly bold movement.

Thesis Bibliography: Chapter Three

Wanda M. Corn, “The Color of Mood: American Tonalism 1880-1910”, San Francisco: M. H. De Young Memorial Museum, 1972.

Barbara Haskell, “Edward Steichen”, The Whitney Museum of American Art, 2002.

Harvey L. Jones, “Twilight and Reverie: California Tonalist Painting 1890-1930”, Oakland Museum of California, 1995.

Barbara Novak, “Nature and Culture: American Landscape Painting 1825-1875”, Oxford University Press, 2007.

James Smith Pierce, “From Abacus to Zeus: A Handbook of Art History”, University of Kentucky, 1998.


Today is Wednesday July 6, 2016. I am feeling familiarity and calm this morning. Many things around me are similar, but the differences remind me of time and place and how memory intertwines with the present. I am sitting at the same desk in the same room. However, it is on the opposite side of the room and the computer is a laptop instead of my large Mac. The room has been updated with new tile and painting and decorative blinds and rugs. There is a lovely palm plant in the corner. My memory of living here for nearly a year is blending with the present reality of our three-week visit. This is our third day and I look forward to writing, reflecting and making my work.

I had planned to start Chapter 2 of my thesis with this entry. However, it is feeling more relevant to recall an entry from an older blog about my experience here that first year.

     “Sunday December 28, 2014
Chasing the sun…..
The sun sets differently this time of year. I did not realize how the landscape would change here. How the light has been altered due to the time of the month and this date near the end of the year. My last visit here was five months ago. Then, it was hot, humid and mostly sunny. Now, it is warm, humid and mostly sunny. This is my third day in this new landscape and what is now being called home.
The sun set at 5:56 pm according to the app on the phone. I looked out the window at approximately 5:30. The view from within the frame of the window provided a glimpse at the sunset. Luminous clouds filled the space between the horizon and the darkening sky. I decided to go out to take in this view and my husband suggested that we hop in the car for a quick drive to the shoreline. As we walked quickly from the parking lot to the water, I felt as though we were chasing the sun. Between 5:48 pm and 5:56 pm the sun no longer cast its warmth and instead took up residence in the clouds hovering above the sea.

March 31, 2015

I have been here for three months. Rarely do I really consider where I am in relationship to place and perspective. I do not feel as though I am on an island. When driving, I see the water on one side at times, but never on both. This sense of relating to a place and its boundaries can only reveal itself realistically if actually perceived. And, at the moment, while in the act of walking or driving, such a view is not possible and therefore, seems to block the idea of the ‘island’. I have yet to gain that understanding. How is this space, this place perceived?

I’ve always had an interest in maps and direction. Growing up in northeast Indiana, I was surrounded by square miles of farmland. The house I grew up in was in a subdivision. However, the house was not part of the usual plan or organization and sat rather, on the parameter of the neighborhood. The backyard was not square or symmetrical and continued its boundary into an undetermined space of a wooded ravine. My childhood was filled with walks through this rugged place. Drawn to texture and details in nature, I recall explorations of plants and trees. By contrast, the daily route to elementary school involved traveling into the symmetrical fields of soybeans and corn. Less than a mile from home the roads turned from curvy to straight and the view opened. The charted path of the school bus involved time as it picked up students along the way. The thirty minute ride often included the act of simply looking out the window. The frame of the window selected my view.
The landscape of the place I grew up altered slightly when my family moved from the subdivision to a new neighborhood roughly four miles to the north and east. This home was located along a slightly curvy East/West state highway intersecting the square mile grid of North and South county roads. The backyard was pastoral as it encompassed several acres of land filled with a large pond surrounded by walnut, pine and sycamore trees. A winding creek flowed through an open space of wild grasses and unruly developments of Goldenrod and Milkweed. After the childhood years of exploration of the previous home, I was newly challenged by this space with its offerings of water, steep ravines and room to walk.
A few years ago I began to study the map of this landscape. I was intrigued by Google Maps and the new ability to view an area from above through the use of a computer. Through this study, I learned about my home place from a new perspective. I could see the roads connecting and the creek winding. I found myself in awe in the realization that the two home places were more connected than previously thought. The creek that flowed behind my childhood home was the same of my second home. Clear Creek charted its curvy path through the county roads from north to south where it eventually ended in the Wabash River.
This study of my home place arrived at a time of learning to navigate a new landscape. I was searching for similarities in a seemingly dissimilar place. I wondered about how to connect with a new place? How does the new space become familiar? Does it become a home? How does this relationship form?

A few years ago I made a new piece titled, “Merging Space, Merging Place”. As a time­-based single channel video, the piece aimed to answer questions I had about where I lived as it compared to my home in Indiana. I often made work considering this question. In the summer of 2008, I moved away from northeast Indiana for the first time. I had lived in the region for thirty­-one years (including college a mere fifty miles to the south). I was ready for a change in scene and a chance to make my work. Alfred, NY was about five hundred miles to the east and north. Surrounded by steep hills and low mountains, the village was small, quaint and charming. I found this new landscape to be very visually intriguing. The horizon line altered with each step and mile explored. No longer enclosed by square miles of farmland, I embraced the difference and challenged my sense of direction by taking many un-mapped excursions into the wilderness. My art soon became a study of this place and my relationship to it.

The two-year study in Alfred focused on research development for achieving a Master in Fine Arts degree. My research included visual art in the form of time based media with video, prints and artist books. Much of the imagery at the beginning depicted the land of Western New York, but it evolved to include the land I’d left behind. In my visits home, I continued the daily practice of making work by taking pictures and video of my favorite places. In leaving home, I found myself eager to return to the landscape for its meditative and soothing atmosphere. My relationship with this place was steeped in memory and years of exploration. Each time I visited during those two years, I found deeper appreciation for what it offered: a sense of history and connection and a difference to what appeared to be so exciting in the hills of Alfred. While I accepted difference in both locations, I found similarities and began to further research what would become my thesis.

In April of 2010, my MFA thesis culminated in a final exhibition titled, “Figure Ground Rhythm: Electronic Meditations on Time”. The visual element took form in exhibition design within a gallery space. A video installation room dominated and intersected the direction of view from beginning to end as the viewer became a participant in the four-dimensional relationship to place. All of the pieces interconnected to reveal a place: my home in northeast Indiana. The written thesis delved into research of landscape in art throughout history including: American Tonalism, straight photography, Pictorialism, American landscape painting of the 1800’s, German Romanticism, Claude Monet, and more recently experimental film and video art of the 1970’s. A study of psychology and perception were also included, as I was additionally influenced by Deleuze and Lacan. My work now, is at it was then, continues to be about place and time, meditation, introspection and identity in relationship to the landscape.

Last Friday I attended a luncheon for a ladies group celebrating six years of meeting once a month. Throughout the hour, they shared stories of the beginning and how various experiences became a yearly ritual. During the luncheon, as the women reflected, I too thought back to six years ago when I was half way through the first year of MFA studies in Alfred. Five years ago I completed my degree. Two years ago in March I sent an email to an old friend. A year ago we reconnected and now, we are married and living in Grand Cayman, an island surrounded by the Caribbean Sea. Today I’m asking questions about place and time as I pursue this new landscape. How does this new place connect to the others? Will the ritual of the tide and subtle sea remind me of the rolling hills of the Palouse? Will the sea mist add a layer of diffusion to an otherwise known landscape? Will my walk here also become a search for familiarity?”


My plan with this new website/blog is to post my thesis writing from grad school and also, to write about works in progress or other thoughts or ideas related to making my artwork. Today, I’m writing about recently trying to paint again.

I say ‘try’ to paint again because it seems as though I’ve forgotten how. Or maybe it’s a mix of things. I know how and I’m trying to not know how. I realize that sounds conflicting and it is. I’m trying to paint like I used to at two other times in my life when painting was something I felt like I could do. However, if I’m honest with myself, it has always been a struggle. And yet, doing it, has always felt completely natural, as though the process was as much a part of me as breathing.

What is a history of an artist? How does it all start? We usually start as every other kid who draws or paints in art education classes or another way. And, then, usually when others are starting new hobbies, we continue on and take more classes and possibly even take college classes. Some of us become art majors in college and then, after usually do something else. But, there are a few who continue to make their work and possibly pursue a higher degree such as an Master of Fine Arts or even a Ph. D. And with all this education and practice in making our work, we know how to do it and how to teach it as well. So, the question I’m wondering, is how do I go back to when I didn’t know as much? How do I go back to a place of pure creativity wherein the process leads the way and the mindful education thoughts are not a constant? How do I start to paint and just follow the paint rather than how each mark interacts and leads the eye and how the composition works as a whole?

In my early life, creativity came in the form of experimentation. I would often blend things, from the food at dinner to all the things in the bathroom, concocting my own mix of foods, or toothpaste or mouthwash. The end results were not important. The process was the joy.

The summer after fifth grade when I was about ten years old, I took a course in darkroom photography. I was excited by the process of taking pictures, developing the film and then, watching the magic of paper development. I continued to take pictures and dreamed of working in a darkroom again. In college, I was able to take another course and I was in love once again.

In seventh grade, I really started to enjoy painting in my art education class. For birthday and Christmas presents, I started receiving art supplies for this new hobby and would often set up a little studio in my room. I recall getting  lost in the process of creativity but also feeling frustrated by what I didn’t yet know how to do: composition and drawing perspective correctly. Art education classes spent a little time in this area, but I didn’t get to really know how to do these things until becoming an art major in college. I’d like to say that I figured it out, that the instruction I received and the many hours of working had a result that I was happy with. At that point in time, making art was about the process and even with the best instruction, I struggled with making work that didn’t follow my process and instead, followed life. Drawing or painting was not about replicating reality. Of course, learning perspective and measuring details was part of it, but for this creative soul, I found little joy in it. I knew that learning it could be done. Anyone can learn to draw. It is a technical skill that can be learned. Just as anyone can learn how to use a camera and how to print a photograph.

Even though I was frustrated with the details of drawing with proper perspective and composition, what I learned in those exercises contributed greatly to my ability to make work that was non-representational. In my painting, the canvas was not a place to recreate life. It was a place to express ideas. And, knowing composition and two-dimensional design was a necessity in making my work successful.

In college my love for painting and for photography allowed my studies to focus on both while I also pursued an art history degree. In my mind at the time, painting was something I could always do while photography, was something I could only do while I had access to a darkroom. So my primary work the last year was in photography. After graduating, I had a dream of being an artist and showing my work. I decided to continue with photography and built a darkroom in my parent’s basement. I joined a co-operative art gallery and starting showing and selling my work. But, it was always photography. And, while I loved making my work in this way: with composition and design an obvious and intuitive consideration, I missed painting.

The summer before my last year of college I decided to focus entirely on painting. My dad and I turned a small barn in the backyard into a studio. I spent hours every day working. My goal was to paint and lose myself in the process, to not over think anything and to make whatever I needed to or wanted to in the moment. The results were a mix of good and bad. Some pieces became favorites and hang to this day. Others were not as well composed and lacked direction. Art is a mix of these things: the intuitive creativity blended with composition, direction and or meaning. And, meaning can be suggestive or descriptive and direct. At the time, the meaning wasn’t as important as the process. However, I learned over time, in school and after, that to make my work effective, I had to pay attention to how the composition contributed to the meaning and or interpretation of the work by others. At that time in life, I didn’t care as much if anyone else understood any of it. I was making art for art sake: for myself and the process that fulfilled something inside. However, when I started to make work to sell it and show in art galleries (with the hope of selling it), I changed the way I made my work.

For photography, I had goals of being expressive as well as compositionally sound. In the early years after undergrad, I worked on making black and white photography to sell in the art galleries. I was successful in that most of what I made did sell and I had several shows in Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky and Georgia. I felt as though the work was fulfilling me in a creative way but also, in a smart way: that everything I learned about composition and design in college art courses had finally clicked. After a few years, though, I felt an itch to do more. I started to wonder if my work was saying anything or doing anything other than serving an aesthetic need for hanging something decorative  on someone’s living room wall. In my mind, this body of work was expressive of conceptual ideas: of formal qualities, tones and textures found in the details of plants and flowers. The parts photographed were not the whole object but rather a close view. This abstracted view was of interest because it cut out the whole meaning and obvious interpretation. I was interested in showing parts to the whole (something we learn in two-dimensional design, principles of design, figure ground relationships, etc). I was looking at other photographers who had similar ideas: Karl Blossfeldt, Imogen Cunningham, and Edward Weston. While I was content with this work, I felt the need to do more. I was also wondering if I could make work that wasn’t just aesthetic. I wanted to make work that was thought-provoking, something beyond ‘beautiful’.

Painting hadn’t happened since the summer before graduating. I put it on the back burner, thinking that someday I would do it again. My focus had shifted to photography and making a living selling my work. But, as time went by, I noticed something was missing. In an attempt to fix this, I discovered Liquid Light. As a liquid emulsion, the mixture could be painted onto any surface and then, be exposed and processed similarly to a regular black and white print. While my research showed ways to make the emulsion a perfect form on the surface, my interest was in doing the opposite. For the first time in a while, I found myself making work in a creative and spontaneous way. I loved the process. The liquid emulsion could be applied with a paint brush on to watercolor paper. These brush marks brought back my passion of painting on canvas and the resulting photographs were expressive of the marks as well as the content within. Instead of working with plants and flowers, my negatives came from the land around my home in northeast Indiana. I was drawn to older forms of architecture in this farming landscape. Still hanging on my walls are two pieces from this body of work: “Grain Silos in the Snow” from 2003.

One aspect that I loved in these new photographs came as a result of the way I made them. Photography is a technical achievement that is difficult to do incorrectly once you know how to do it. And, with negatives as the original image, copies can be made almost indefinitely. Using Liquid Light the way I did, when I brushed it across the surface of the paper, the marks could not be repeated. I didn’t want to repeat an image once it was made. It was a one time thing: a monoprint. I also enjoyed how the surface of the image would change in development, washing and drying allowed inconsistencies that were out of my control.  I could not create all of it on my own. I was thrilled that the process had a part in the final outcome. Making this work was a mix of technology and the unexpected.

Thinking back to 2003, I was an eager young artist and my goals were met for the most part. However, it became clear that I needed to do something else to make a living and the natural option was to be a commercial photographer. I started a business taking senior, family and wedding pictures in Huntington, Indiana, my hometown. I found great joy in doing this work and as it grew to be more successful, I made less artwork. Not making art for a few years had an effect on me. I suppose it mixed with other life happenings and at some point near turning thirty, I realized that making art was something I really needed to do. I needed to paint and I needed to make the work I’d always wanted to but feared for some reason. In 2007, I taught a college photography class for the first time and found myself excited at the prospect of doing both: making my work and teaching for a living. I applied to graduate programs and thankfully, was accepted into the one that most spoke to my soul. From 2008-2010, I worked on my Master of Fine Arts in Electronic Integrated Arts at Alfred University in Alfred, NY. It was here that I found my way and faced the fears of doing what I wanted: to make the art work that I needed to make and have it be accepted in this new art world.

Painting returned to my life just before going to grad school. I turned a guest room in my apartment into a studio and got to work again. I was tired of thinking about what to paint and just let myself go. The works contributed to my application to grad school in a time-based video installation. In grad school, painting was not my focus, but I continued to do it when possible. My primary work was in time based media: photography and video. As I got used to making work that moved literally across the screen, each mark I made had a moving element and became one part to the whole of a time based video piece. I think this challenged my painting in that I was used to my marks moving continuously, but on canvas, they stopped.

My paintings became more about gesture and movement, the marks were faster and more of the moment. I would make a painting and move on to the next, not spending a lot of time on each piece, as if time would change what I made if it lasted longer than one session. I finally started to make work that I enjoyed: both for the process and the end composition near the end of grad school. One painting that I felt was successful combined paint and drawing with oil pastels and layers of gloss medium between each. The piece was layered and full of marks moving in and out of spaces in the composition. There was an implied landscape, but nothing too descriptive. Thinking back to how my graduate work evolved, the painting was very similar to my video work. I was interested in subtlety, mark making, gestures, movement through space and between objects. The only difference was time: one happened in time and the other through time.

After graduate school, I moved to eastern Washington to teach full-time at university level: digital art, photography, design, video art, performance and art history. I lived in a nice little house and worked on my new career quite intensely. I still felt the need to paint and set up a studio in my basement. From time to time, I would spent hours working on canvases trying to reconnect with the piece I’d made at Alfred. A few of them worked, but I didn’t feel satisfied. I had trouble getting in to making my work with the same intensity I had in grad school. My life was full of deadlines, pressure to teach and continue to make my other work when I had the time (which was not often). So, painting got further and further away. Then, it became something I did when I was stressed and needed to express myself in ways that were difficult to do in photography or making a new video art piece. While I did make work in those media, I longed to be in my painting the way I had in the past. But, it never quite happened.

Two years ago my life changed significantly when I found myself in love and planning my wedding. I no longer felt angst or emotion about what might happen next. I packed up my house and moved to the Cayman Islands with my husband. I started to make my work again and let go of all the stress from teaching. Letting that go took about a year, but as recently as this past Christmas, I found myself feeling creative again as I made new work. In the months leading up to this new website, I began to ponder whether or not I wanted to try to paint again. With spring’s arrival, the outdoor screened in porch seemed to be calling to me. I searched through my things in my parent’s basement and found my old easel, saved canvases and paint brushes. I bought myself five tubes of oil paint: blue, yellow, red, green and burnt umber. And, last week, I started to apply them to the canvas.

The feeling is like no other, really. I was instantly drawn into the process and the feel of the paint in the brush touching the surface of the canvas. I made marks and for a little while, let go. However, not for long. I realized that I was trying to make something representational. The blues and greens mixed and the red and yellow started to look like a sunset. I was irritated and annoyed and yet felt the drive to continue. I am out of practice. I am in a known and unknown place. I have the past and the present constantly in my mind. What I’ve done and what I could do if I just let myself. No pressure, of course, and yet, it is there. I have yet to break through that and to accept the moment and, to let time lead that moment to whatever “it” may be.

Rhythm & Reflection II

Today is a continuation of the first post.

A Thesis of Figure Ground Rhythm, Jamie Hahn, copyright 2010.

Chapter 1, section 2

“Movement seems to engage intimately with time…….The snow flakes within the landscape presents a seemingly still body and a rhythmic exchange between the senses reacting to the atmospheric changes. The result is a direct response of experience. Visual and tangible perception are keyed into a rather quick reactionary cognitive explanation of where the body is in relationship to other objects in space. Such direct attentiveness to the surrounding environment offers an opportunity to see more slowly. When the snowflake landed on your nose, you were still, calm, and focused. Within the furry of a million flakes fluttering around your stance, one became the object of study. The calm and focus occurred between the stillness of the flake at rest and the stillness of your stance, and then, your ability to see movement slow and pause. Time seemed to slow down. The flake changed pace, slowed in tempo, rested and paused before floating on to its final destination. In that time, that slow time, seeing motion gradually allowed a beautiful exchange to take place. This is exchange is what I like to call figure ground rhythm.

To introduce this concept, a conversation on what perception is needs to occur. Defining perception is something of a task. Perception involves the senses and is always working as we are always sensing surrounding stimuli. From the visual to the tactile, the senses keenly tune into an immediate interpretation of what is being perceived. From that percept, follows cognition or making sense, gaining understanding or acquiring knowledge. Defining perception in the dictionary finds eight notes of meaning; each slightly different from the other, although all pertaining to sameness. The intricate differences are interesting to compare and learn from as they contribute significantly to seeing and understanding. A few are listed here:

1. the act of apprehending by means of the senses, understanding

2. intuitive appreciation, insight, discernment, the result of perceiving

3. interpretation of sensory stimuli based on memory

In seeing there is learning. What is new is welcomed by what is known, memory meets discovery. All visual variables contribute: value of lightness, depth of field or spatial view, line, shape, texture and motion. And, all tactile variables contribute: sense of touch and balance as in kinesthetics and proprioception where the body moves in awareness of itself moving through space. Physiologically, perception is cognitive understanding of information gained by the senses. And, while a natural occurrence, is perhaps taken for granted in everyday experiences. Not often is it discussed in interactions with snowflakes. However, perception is vital in influencing everything from memory, to place, and orientation, to identity.

In a kind of rhythmic dance, the body relates and reacts to stimuli within a given environment. To grasp an understanding of perception, an investigation into how visual sense data is processed needs to be reviewed. Vision, or eyesight as science knows it today, involves research in psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience and biology. “When the eye assimilates information from the environment, the lens of the eye focuses an image onto a light-sensitive membrane at the back of the eye. The retina converts patterns of light into neuronal signals while the lens focuses light on the photo receptive cells of the retina, which detect the photons of light and respond by producing neural signals. The signals are processed in a hierarchical fashion by different parts of the brain.” While this explanation covers part of the ‘how’, what is still needed is the other ‘how’. This is how what is seen becomes known as a familiar object. Perceptual knowledge is also formed from memory, context and recognition. Perception involves thinking and reacting. Lines connect and form shapes. The circular object on the wall becomes a clock. A rectangular shape becomes a picture frame. Whatever may be in a line of vision is seen as what it is or is figured out based on context.

In psychology, one such explanation of perception stems from Gestaltism which formed out of the Berlin School in the early twentieth century. The theory “refers to the form-forming capability of our senses, particularly with respect to the visual recognition of figures and whole forms instead of just a collection of simple lines and curves”. By trying to define or explain how objects were being perceived, Gestalt psychology formed laws and principles. Later in the twentieth century, as science and psychology evolved, Gestalt was criticized for being merely descriptive; however, the ideas helped further research into the “perception of patterns and objects in relation to behavior, thinking and problem solving”.

The principles of Gestalt systems come in the forms of: emergence, reification, multistability and invariance. Samples of emergence show a scene of directional shapes made up of black spots against a white ground. The rhythm or variance of location of the spots lead the eye to see the whole first and then, see the parts. Reification is a construction of perception also from such spots and how they are arranged in a directional pattern. The spatiality of a shape is formed between the positive and negative spaces to convey a suggested contour shape. In multistability, ambiguous shapes shift back and forth from a positive to negative outlining two or more possible objects. This figure ground relationship is most well known in the vase/figure/face illusion where the shape contrasts with figurative lines. Finally, invariance is ‘simple geometrical objects being recognized independent of rotation, translation and scale’ in various directions including different shades, textures and lighting.

In addition to Gestalt principles, the laws were designed to explain visual perception as an experience of sensation which lead to the interpretation of such. Closure, similarity, proximity, symmetry, continuity, and common fate are defined here:

  1. Closure: the mind may experience elements it does not perceive through sensation in order to complete a regular figure
  2. Similarity: the mind groups similar elements into collective entities or totalities. Similarity might depend on form, color, size or brightness.
  3. Proximity: spatial or temporal proximity of elements may indue the mind to perceive a collective or totality
  4. Symmetry: figure ground relationships in symmetrical images are perceived collectively, even in spite of distance
  5. Continuity: the mind continues visual, auditory and kinetic patterns.
  6. Common Fate: elements with the same moving direction are perceived as a collective or unit.

Colliding with visual data input to the retina is the constancy of motion and depth. Each contribute simultaneously with the cognition of what is being seen and interpreted. When elements within a scene are moving, both speed and direction are processed. Studied in neurology, engineering and psychology, motion perception is outlined in two orders. The first order examines the process of figure ground when the motion of an object differs in lightness from its background. One example is a black bug walking from one side of the wall to the other. A simple motion detected by a simple sensor in the retina. The second order of motion is when a moving shape is ‘defined by contrast, texture, flicker or some other quality that does not result in an increase in luminance  or motion energy’. This order is considered a weaker ‘temporal resolution’ of the moving stimuli. When integrated, the visual system can detect various parts within a two dimensional field of view and differentiate this view from a ‘global’ or three dimensional representation of moving surfaces and objects.

The ability to see three dimensionally is derived from depth perception. Right alongside is the sensation of depth, which allows the body to move and respond to an environment based on the distances between objects in spatial relationship to the body. Each perception involves visual clues from both eyes and input from just one. Binocular vision is more about depth and stereopsis while monocular is on size and objects at different distances appearing smaller or larger depending on location and comparison. Both types of vision contribute to how depth is perceived in what is called motion parallax. The body in motion changes or alters the view of stationary objects within a scene. This shift in background to object helps to give cognitive cues as to the relative distance between the object and the observer. In physics, “if the information is known about the direction and the velocity of movement, motion parallax can provide absolute depth information”. One example of this is when driving in a car, objects closest appear to not move at all, they seem smaller and less detailed. When driving, our visual percept of motion heightens our sense of kinetic depth perception. Objects that appear to be changing in size; bigger for instance, begin to feel closer. The brain uses kinetic depth perception to sense reaction time known as TTC “time to contact” depending on velocity and allows our visual information to guide away from a possible collision with the enlarged and too close object.

A balancing act occurs when motion between the close objects and the distant objects relate to the figure (the body) in space thus becoming a multi-dimensional figure ground percept. In time, as motion and movement cause reaction per perception of view and of detailed focus, a rhythmic exchange occurs between the figure and the ground. In the concept of figure ground rhythm, the figure is the body as it moves in reaction to and in relationship to the ground which is the environment, therein. Rhythm is based on time as it shifts from moment to moment, viewpoint to viewpoint. Joining this dance of perceptual interaction is a key element related to time: light.

Chapter 2 will begin with the next post.

References: The Physiology of Perception, Walter Freeman, University of California, 1991











Rhythm & Reflection

Figure Ground Rhythm is a concept I’ve developed in my research of making time-based interdisciplinary artwork. And, now has also become the title and concept of this website/blog. My work has previously been on a somewhat typical artist website, a place to view the pieces and information about my research. I’ve decided recently to change the old format into something more interactive. Writing has always been a part of my work, either in poetic form as a preface to an artist book or in research form in my MFA written thesis. My goal with this website/blog is to write about my work and also include excerpts from my thesis which I may respond to as each entry evolves. I hope to reach a wider audience in the writing and art community as well as social media outlets for shared ideas and thoughts on contemporary discourse in art, education and community.

What is this concept of Figure Ground Rhythm? I developed this idea from both my art practice and my interest in the research that led to my written thesis. I graduated from NYSCC at Alfred University with a MFA in Electronic Integrated Arts in 2010. The thesis research involved making my work and also, writing about how the work evolved and my particular interests in subjects that contributed to my overall concept. The written thesis is in the form of a self published artist book and resides at Scholes Library at Alfred University in Alfred, NY. Until recently, it also existed as a PDF document on my previous website. And, now, the writing will live here in the form of posts, entries of selections from various chapters.

A Thesis of Figure Ground Rhythm, Jamie Hahn, copyright 2010.


being mesmerized by a spatial density between atmospherics and figure ground relationships within a landscape.

in search of orientation, an awareness of presence in time, in history. a place of familiarity, a kinship within a figurative environment…

a meditative space. a reflection on time, light and modulating surfaces.

being saturated by an atmospheric rhythmic shift in perception and sense of expectation…

Chapter 1: section 1

“Lightly, almost in a fine mist, the snow falls. The falling is multi-directional. Like a wave or a strong current, the mass of flakes shift from left to right, up and down, diagonal, forwards and backwards masking clarity. Through the blinds, the perspective from here portrays a view almost like static television noise. The pine tree shape is fuzzy, the suspected distance or depth of view is altered. A focused eye can see branches swaying through the rapid haze of snow falling. The static eases, the tree is clarified. A constant flurry of movement reignites, and the dotted air obscures vision once again.

Outside in the flurry of falling snow, time feels different. Accumulation of snow takes time. Flake by flake the sea of white rises and covers the previous scape of ground. Standing within this hazy, damp atmosphere, accumulated time meets the moment, and an overall point of view meets focused attention from the whole scene to the one tiny flake that just landed on the tip of your nose. Catching a flake and inspecting its uniqueness suddenly draws intensive focus to how the multitude of them could possibly create a mask of white to every other shape, contour, contrasting texture, light or movement within view.

Shifting focused study from the tiny flake to the grand view of swirling masses is almost dizzying. Standing there with this kind of focus on the tiny amongst the many of similar form, motion and time move differently. Whatever the background, as hazy or masked as it may appear to be, is mostly still. Standing too, feels still. Passage of the moment slows with an intensity of watching single flakes travel through the atmosphere and make their landing. Patience is required to watch the entire journey as the flake nestles into its new home and gently blends into a new surface becoming less dimensional, less affected by movement.

As the flurrying diminishes, new focus is allowed to rest on the still forms. Trees, grasses, plants and the shape of the surrounding land can now be seen clearly. The dusting of white may alter their previous shape, but overall, these forms have returned to recognizable states of being. Before moving away, attention may be given to some movement of less intrigue. This is the movement of what appears to be still. This is the form that appears to be constant, reliable, known, definable as such and such. And, yet, with focus, it moves, and shifts dimensionally. The brush, the grasses, the leaves, the tree branches, the water in the pond, the clouds in the sky. Eventually movement within the standing position becomes clear and a realization occurs: motion is an ever present constant. Movement seems to engage intimately with time.”

The next post will continue with section 2 of Chapter 1.