Pareidolia is a special case of apophenia: the experience of seeing patterns or connections in random or meaningless data. Having spent years in operational management I have been subject to numerous examples of apophenia, the most common being when a manager sees a dip in performance figures, interprets it as a sign of some lack at the individual level and decides to “take action,” a pep talk or a telling off, and then, when the stat’s show an ‘improvement’ the next day, ascribes the ‘change’ to his or her actions. In fact the data was random, both before and after the intervention. No change took place, just variation within a stable system.
With pareidolia a vague visual stimulus is perceived as something clear and distinct, like the horrifying face I always saw within the pattern and folds of my bedroom curtains when I was a child, or that image of Mother Teresa in a potato I was amused by this morning. Something more than the pattern is read-in, or projected. Jesus in the bacon dripping is a personal favourite. (For me, it’s so convincing I suspect it’s a hoax.)
In writing recently about the paintings of Lisa Denyer, I said that the viewer ‘completes’ the paintings in a similar way to “gazing into a fire and seeing one’s own imagined universe”, which I think is to encourage pareidolia. It’s not quite the same as seeing something that isn’t there, an hallucination,. If we distinguish, within the act of seeing, three separate actions: observation, interpretation and judgement, an hallucination takes place at the observation stage, whereas pareidolia is linked more to interpretation. Both seem to involve the imaginary, possibly in hallucination it is unconscious whereas in pareidolia it is conscious.
When I’m looking at Cut Out 738 by Ralph Anderson, I am not hallucinating the drips of paint that are also cut out of the ply wood of which the work is constructed, they are really there, and palpably so. Pareidolia kicks in when I start to read the curved line toward bottom right as a letter “c” and the green diagonal brushstroke as a forward slash above which is an “i”, i over c, sounds like a vaguely Lacanian sign for something. I check it out with others who didn’t see it until I mentioned it. Perhaps there are degrees or levels of pareidolia, in which case this is low level, not Jesus-in-the-bacon-fat, full blown pareidolia. it’s possible that the artist intended for me to at least question whether these works are signs for something, or possibly even signs that signify only themselves.
In Louisa Chambers‘ painting Balance 1, I am imagining some alchemy, the forms recalling, for me, laboratory instruments upon a table or work bench and the colours are fire. There’s a believable space in which some unknown drama is being enacted, unknown because it’s not quite figural enough to figure out what’s happening, other than the placement of colour-shapes, so I do what we all do in lieu of adequate information, I make stuff up, or rather I employ my powers of association in order to make sense of what I see.
David Manley‘s wonderful oval shaped black and white painting on aluminium, Martin Beck, seems impenetrable, I am struggling to read anything into the six semi circular shapes, subtle scuff markings and clearly drawn white lines, on a glossy black surface. Pareidoliac images form more easily where there is an abundance of indeterminate markings, in other words in works that are “painterly”, and even though here the black ground is far from unmodulated, it’s not painterly enough for pictures to suggest themselves. The painting is more object than image, more so even than Ralph Anderson’s “is it two, is it three dimensional?” piece. Knowing that it is from Manley’s Black North series, inspired by Scandinavian Noir doesn’t lead me to find images, other than the oval shape itself and the hardness of the decorated surface. The sense I have is of being confronted by something that is attempting to occupy my personal space, in fact I can be more specific now, it’s a shield, equally aggressive as it is defensive. And it’s only now that I realise that something similar to pareidolia is taking place after all.
With Phoebe Mitchell‘s Comfort, there being little formal structure and much painterly gesture, there’s ample opportunity for Pareidolia, almost an open invitation to read-in, not that much different than looking at Rorschach ink blots, if it weren’t for the fact that Mitchell’s work has many more times the beauty, and I don’t think that’s a projection. Similarly, in her other tiny painting here, and also in Rachael Macarthur‘s Untitled, what’s being presented is artfully vague enough to encourage the viewer to free-associate.
Should we distinguish between intended and unintended pareidolia? Is it part of an artists skill to direct the viewer to see what the artist wants, and to prevent ab-interpretations? (I am reminded of Adolph Gottlieb, in relation to his pictographs, if he discovered that one of his signs was actually existent in a past culture he would drop it from his repertoire.) However, sometimes an artist’s intention is for us to see things that s/he did not specifically intend, and I think that’s where Gottleib got to later on. The surrealist practice of decalcomania also seems like a good example of this attitude.
Jack Foster’s Untitled poses questions of interpretation that are more conceptual perhaps than others here. I experience far less free-association in pondering the inverted head on a green ground and I engage in a more linguistic attempt to interpret what is being presented. There’s little by way of free-association also in my own painting Hexagon Colour-Spread (BGRYMC), but the emphasis is more perceptual, the way the viewer constructs colour and shape is what’s being explored, the shifting gestalts also bringing attention to the pre-linguistic processes of perception.
The link between percept and memory construct is I think what is emphasised in the vulnerable little painting by Rachael MacArthur, shapes only just distinct enough to become forms but never enough to become anything specific. I like the pairing of this hesitant image with the more forceful and the largest painting here: Paradise (Yellow and Grey) by Ellie MacGarry, a painting that seems to exult in the perception of colour, showing how it changes as two colours cross, creating a third that is at the same time both and neither of the other two. Clashes of hue create lots of optical buzz and a lively space that keeps opening up and then bringing me back to the painting’s surface. The drawing is simple and confident, looking like there was little room for error, as if the artist got just the one chance to place this series of lines, or this marvelous expanse of grey. (Speaking to her, I find out that I am wrong about this and that other versions exist underneath the surface.)
Colour appears also to be a preoccupation of Frances Disley, in her three-dimensional painting Figure, especially in its power to dissolve form as much as to describe it, and to mislead even, creating events out of the absent shapes that are cut out of the surface and either discarded or added back on in a different place, along with cut-outs of digital prints or spray painted bits of foam. The piece has something theatrical about it, looking vaguely like an object from a science fiction set, Star Trek perhaps, a rock that might also be a creature, but that all along is clearly made from cardboard, or is it?
How we interpret abstract paintings, and the strangeness of sense-making, seems to be what Pluspace curator Matthew Macaulay is exploring by bringing together the work of these nine artists in the exhibition Pareidolia, which can be seen on Saturdays and Sundays at 50 Bishop Street, Coventry until 14 September.
Checking it out! (if I don’t manage to get to the P.V. I certainly hope to get to the show before it closes on 11 October.)
I am delighted to be participating in this upcoming exhibition, come along to the opening on 21 Aug at 6pm if you can.
21st – 14th September
50 Bishop St, Coventry CV1 1HW, UK
Ralph Anderson, Louisa Chambers, Frances Disley, Jack Foster, Rachael MacArthur, Ellie MacGarry, David Manley, Phoebe Mitchell, Andy Parkinson
Religious figures faces in toast, houses that resemble dictators of the past, clouds that bear the shape of rabbits and other animals. Why do we have a developed tendency to see things that are not really there? Carl Sagan in ‘The Demon-Haunted World’ states:
“as soon as the infant can see it recognizes faces, and we now know that this skill is hardwired in our brains. Those infants who a million years ago were unable to recognize a face smiled back less, were less likely to win the hearts of their parents. And less likely to prosper.”
Our brains are biologically trained and motivated to recognise patterns. Pareidolia is where there is an illusion or misconception of perceiving something as significant where there really is nothing.
With artwork each viewer brings their own personal understanding of the world, and as a result their reading of the artwork is often different to that of the artist that had created it.
This is a collection of artworks from nine different artists who all have very different sensibilities when creating work. Many of the artist have an interest in visual perception and this is an attempt to see how they sit together. Phoebe Mitchell who is one of the artists featured in this exhibition has in the past created a series of exhibitions that has been based around Apophenia. Apophenia is the experience of seeing patterns or connections in random or meaningless data, Pareidolia is a kind of Apophenia.
This exhibition has been curated by artist Matthew Macaulay. For more information on the exhibition please contact email@example.com
Image used is Ralph Anderson ‘Cut Out 738′
There are some wonderful paintings (etc.) on show at the Lion and Lamb Summer Saloon 2014. My particular interest is in the “abstract” or “reductive” work.
Onya McCausland‘s double painting Attachment, two eliptical shapes, mirroring each other, one earth pigment on ply panel and the other earth pigment on aluminium panel, seems to extend the criteria of what we mean by “painting”, as does Simon Callery‘s Red Painting (Soft), an object that resembles a canvas bag more than it does a ‘picture’. Both these are engaging pieces of work, existing in that space between painting and sculpture, and leading me to wonder whether the further away from the traditional definition an artwork becomes, the more important it might be to identify it as a “painting” in the title. The boundaries and settled conventions are challenged, whilst also acknowledging that painting is in fact a thoroughly conventional medium.
What gets challenged in Painting by Telepathy by Biggs and Collings is more the viewer’s perception than the medium, not so much questioning “what is painting?” so much as “what is vision?” The image alters depending on the particular gestalt that is prominent for me at any moment, and if you were standing beside me, then you might be seeing a different painting than the one I am seeing. Multiple views are present in the one object at all times, yet they can only be accessed singularly, one interpretation must give way to another. As a result, I sense movement, and space, “real” movement and “real” space but of a strictly two-dimensional kind.
I am impressed by the beauty of it, even though that might seem like a rather old fashioned idea, by which I think I mean the fascinating surface, the particular sensation of colour and structure, as well as this experience of shifting gestalts. I find myself saying “wow” and only then considering what such a response might mean, as well as how specifically it was elicited.
It’s a different kind of beauty that I find in Floyd Varey‘s painting. The perception-altering experience I had when viewing Painting by Telepathy is absent. Instead I see something more object-like, more literal, more able to exist on its own without my participation: objectively present, if that were possible. I am still fascinated by the surface and its extension beyond and wrapping around the support, on the verge of becoming three-dimensional, the simple result of a particular process.
Would it be correct to say that in Painting by Telepathy it is more image than object that I am aware of, whereas with Callery and Varey, it’s the object that is more prominent? If so, perhaps there’s a similar conversation going on in Ralph Anderson‘s Summer Toiler, the literal materiality of the paint runs, suggesting a triple movement, from image to object and back again. At times these material gestures cohere into forms I recognise but that I think are my own projections, like the figure 2 that I keep seeing, above which is a division sign beneath a telephone handset. It may also be a projection when I see visual echoes of Frank Stella’s later paintings, in miniature.
Playing with the process of painting, and of abstraction, David Webb‘s now familiar Parcheesi form becomes star-like against a blue/green ground in one reading, or alternatively, a figure emerges from the negative spaces created by moving objects on different planes, much as on TV, when the Channel 4 ident comes into view.
Tim Renshaw‘s tiny, immaculately executed painting, on aluminium, entitled Notebook Architecture 10, is in one sense the simplest of things, two sets of vertical lines, yet it is also highly complex visually, especially in the altering spatial relationship between the two sets of lines, which are stripes towards the bottom edge but when I attend to the upper half of the image they look more like bars that have volume and depth. Space seems to open up between the two banks of lines or bars, a space that twists as I attempt to make sense of it. The groups of bars starts to read like doors slowly opening, suggesting also a deeper space behind them. Becoming aware of the title I start to think that they could be behaving something like the leaves of a notebook.
There’s a host of good work here,with tons of variety. If this is an indication of what’s happening in contemporary painting right now, then I think it’s looking healthy. There are interesting conceptual and figurative pieces along with other abstract works that I cannot do justice to in the space I have. One Two Three, by Julian Wakelin seems to be as much about what isn’t there as what is, Rebecca Meanley‘s abstract impressionist landscape, an alluring riot of colour and gesture, almost coalesces into a pinky-blue monochrome, whilst Louise Hopkins’s Outlast, a sophisticated work on paper, economically follows or counters with pencil and watercolour the geometry of folded paper.
Julian Wakelin, Matthew Musgrave, Vincent Hawkins and Jessica Wilson all show paintings that are daring in their sparsity, I’d say audacious if they didn’t also appear somewhat vulnerable, their modest size and their informality suggesting an alternative to the polished and the spectacular that sometimes seems to be our dominant cultural expression.
There are two charming process paintings by Erin Lawlor Slip and Bite, wet on wet, and showing clear enjoyment of what paint does when you simply make a brushstroke. In Catherine Ferguson‘s Angels, a blue brush stroke traces a curving line horizontally across a vibrant yellow ground, populated by pink swirling shapes, at once gestures and figures, kept in place by a jarring orange frame.
I think I stay longest with Natalie Dower‘s wonderful little painting Seventeen. It’s just 35 x 35cm, a 17 x 17 square grid (my maths! I’m struggling to work out what the dimensions of each cell must be), in black, white, grey and green, again the simplest yet most complex of things, I’m approaching it a bit like I might a puzzle, attempting to work out the criteria for placing the parts, only five different elements in all: a light green square, a grey square, a blue/green square, a black square and a white rhombus set inside a grey square.
Whatever the rules governing their placement, I note that repetition is involved in the whole but that the relationships between the five parts in any one line is never repeated, in any direction. There is nothing random about the arrangement of these elements, even if I can’t actually work out how to state the rule, the formula if you will. And I absolutely don’t need it in order to see that what results is surprising and interesting, in contradistinction to what is meant when works are sometimes labelled “formulaic”. It’s a system, and one of the characteristics of a system is emergence, where “larger entities, patterns, and regularities arise through interactions among smaller or simpler entities that themselves do not exhibit such properties”, so that the space created by the aggregation of single grey squares, or the generation of just one complete grey rhombus, itself not one of the five elements, are emergent properties of this system. The phenomenon of emergence is where surprises come from, that I think is a feature of a systems aesthetic.
There’s also something akin to emergence that takes place whenever you bring an array of disparate works together in an exhibition like this one at the Lion and Lamb Summer Saloon.
The full list of artists included is as follows:
Ralph Anderson, Dominic Beattie, Dan Beard, Kiera Bennett, Biggs & Collings, Michael Boffey, Britta Bogers, Simon Callery, Ad Christodoulou, Graham Cowley, Karen David, Nelson Diplexcito, Kaye Donachie, Natalie Dower, Cath Furguson, Hester Finch, Andrew Grassie, Steve Green, John Greenwood, Vincent Hawkins, Gerard Hemsworth, Sam Herbert, Sigrid Holmwood, Suzanne Holtom, Louise Hopkins, Dan Howard-Birt, Erin Lawlor, George Little, Onya McCausland, Declan McMullan, Damien Meade, Rebecca Meanley, Matthew Musgrave, Selma Parlour, Tim Renshaw, Kevin Smith, Benet Spencer, Neal Tait, Dolly Thompsett, Joel Tomlin, Floyd Varey, Jessica Voorsanger, Julian Wakelin, Richard Wathen, David Webb, Robert Welch, Simon Willems and Jessica Wilson.
The show continues until 30 August. Later it will travel to Aldeburgh Beach South LOOKOUT Project, Aldeburgh, Suffolk hosted by Caroline Wiseman Modern Contemporary, 20 – 21 September 2014.
I hope I haven’t given too much away by sharing my preliminary studies in recent posts.
I’m working on ten paintings, based on the decorative pavement tiles in Long Row (East) Nottingham. Here’s a snapshot of the first one. On Long Row, the tile arrangements are each 20″ x 20″, these are dimensions that I have been working with for some time now, so it seems natural to make paintings that are “actual size”.
What do you think, is my new work abstract?