Monthly Archives: February 2014

On The Surface

(This is the fifth in a series of meditations on the Elements of Art and their implications beyond the visual realm.)

In visual works of art, texture is defined as the look or feel of the surface. Texture can be understood through vision or by touch, registering as rough, smooth, undulating, irregular, wet, reflective, soft– even as patchworks of all these together.

While the surface treatment of a work might seem inessential, perhaps an afterthought, the triviality vanishes when we realize that vision relies on surfaces to reflect light, light that defines objects and delineates the world. Without the surfaces of the things of the world, there would be no focused beauty, no pleasure in discovery or recognition, no delight in the wonders of the day. Our eyes need objects to deliver visual messages to our brains, just as our ears need objects to deliver sounds (sound only happens when sonic waves strike objects). Without objects and their surfaces, the world would be for us a silent place with a diffuse monochromatic backdrop. We need the play of light for the Play of Life.

On a surf-sculpted beach you can see the gritty texture of the sand, hear it against your rubber soles, feel it abrade your palms. There are larger textures, too: rows of curlicued forms carved by incoming tides, and networks of paisley deltas that mark the ebb. The eye follows the texture of flotsam– an irregular blanket of shells, kelp, driftwood– to the slate of jutting rocks, the hairy bark of trees and their bristly branches, and up into the sky with its own undulating foams and patterns carved by currents. The star performer in all this beauty is Light, and the stage on which it dances is Surface.

Each plane of color is launched from a textured surface, every scene originates in texture, waiting for light to attach its magic. In this way light takes its place as the chief metaphor for Spirit: it is the sublime substance that combines with matter and creates transcendent beauty. The main medium for the visual artist is light itself; by forming and manipulating surfaces of paintings or sculptures the artist invites the enigma of light to intermingle and shine. In a surface-less world there is no place for color, pattern, line, or shape to depart from or be imitated. So textured surfaces allow for the transcendent view of the shore, the picture painted from that view, the cotton dress depicted in the picture, the tide-imprinted topographies on the beach, and a place for the heart, drawn with a stick in the sand.