calvin burton

Haptic viewing, 2014

Nineteenth century art historians used the word haptic to describe the effect of looking at Egyptian relief sculpture, in which a drawn figure is carved into flat stone.  The raw stone functions visually as the "background," yet the figure, being carved, actually exists under/behind the level of the ground, such that figure and background, normally in discrete and logical opposition to each other, operate on the viewer within a single compressed optical plane.  The resulting tension between the eye’s simultaneous perceptions of two- and three-dimensions provokes a sensual, tactile (rather than merely visual) experience. To see haptically is to touch with your eyes.

An ongoing problem in my work is to paint a figural object that similarly subverts the conventional hierarchy of figure and ground.  A painting, being both a two-dimensional abstract surface and a concrete physical object, embodies the potentiality of haptic experience.  As a painter I am most interested in the relationship between color and drawing, which acts as an analogy to the surface-object dialectic.  Color on a flat surface, in particular the modulation of warm and cool colors, is alone capable of enabling tactile perception.  But a figure cannot exist without drawing.  Drawing is needed to codify the figure on the painted surface and within the boundaries of the painted object.  Drawing is the schematic activity that brings figural structure to the color, like language to sound, without which the viewer would have little to perch on.

My first principle is to avoid reifying a painting’s abstract two-dimensional element by not thinking only about its surface appearance – the image.  My second is to avoid reverting to the conventional illusion of three-dimensional space by not representing a figure in space and thereby defusing the painting’s haptic potential.  This leaves things somewhere in the middle, sitting at the picture plane without being abstract, figural without being figurative, passing back and forth within an imperceptibly thin margin, where success is always in close proximity to failure.