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?”