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A ‘shimmering thing at the edge of analysis’: Figure/ground and the paintings of Agnes Martin

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My specific focus is the relationship of figure/ground segregation in painting to the pressures of impermanence, non-differentiation and non-duality. Figure/ground assignment depends on the mind’s ability to establish, process and stabilize clear contrasts or dualisms within the visual field, which then become the basis for all cognitive binaries. The flat, framed format of painting makes figure/ground assignment a central issue. Normally, when we perceive an image we also consign a background to imperception, but blurring out of fine detail, softening of sharp edges and contrast sensitivity frustrate this perceptual activity, undermining the distinction between presence and absence, and bringing to light an undifferentiated foundation. I discuss the physiology and phenomenology of vision, and research in the neurosciences, and focus on the paintings of the American artist Agnes Martin (1912–2004) and the challenge they pose to stable figure/ground assignment. Within her work I identify the shifting shape of non-normative subjectivity.
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Keywords: Agnes Martin; Mark Rothko; figure/ground; neuroaesthetics; the haptic; vision and visuality

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Dankook University

Publication date: 2016-04-01

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  • Journal of Contemporary Painting responds to the territory and practice of contemporary painting in its broadest sense, viewing painting as a context for discussion, exploring its sphere of history and influence, rather than as a medium specific debate. The JCP combines a thematic approach with an open call, each issue opening up and problematising pressing concerns in contemporary painting.

    As well as contributions to current debates on contemporary art, a particular feature of the Journal of Contemporary Painting is the publication of archival or newly translated texts alongside current responsive articles, based on the premise that contemporary painting cannot be understood without reflecting on its history. Dedication to understanding the nature and forms of painting research has also led to the inclusions of an original visual essay for every edition. Additionally we respond to current exhibitions, books and symposia, nationally and internationally, in our reviews section.

    Our aim is to be responsive to current debates in painting and related art practices, drawing from a wide geographical field and across discipline boundaries to provide a discursive space in which a range of subject specialisms can be brought to bear on the culture of painting. We are particularly interested in writing emerging from practice-based research as well as from academics working in different disciplines.

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