December 3, 2010

Negative Space

        "Negative space" is defined as the space around and between the subject(s) of an image.  It's the nothing around the something.  But "negative" space can be just as powerful and important as "positive" space.  Sometimes what isn't said is as important as what is.  Sometimes the space between is really the subject of a piece.
White (blank paper) negative space.
        When D and I were first married, his old used car failed its inspection for several problems, and we decided that rather than pour money into a rapidly failing wreck with over 127 thousand miles, we would invest in a new car.  That weekend we started car shopping, but because we were living in a small town, we had to drive an hour and a quarter to the nearest dealership that had the car we wanted to look at.  We reached the town around lunch time and stopped at a mall for a bite to eat before going to the dealership.  When we came back out to the parking lot after lunch, D's car would not start.  On Friday the car had been diagnosed with failure of any of its windows to roll down, problems with the emergency brake, and cracked brake hoses.  On Saturday the air conditioning had given out, and on Sunday it was dead in a parking lot.  We went back into the mall and called a cab (this being in those long-ago days before cell phones), which took us to the car dealership and abandoned us there.
In the classic illusion, which is the negative space?
        Did ever a car salesman have so easy a sale dropped in his lap?  If we didn't buy a car from him on the spot we had no way to leave that lot!  And yet the salesman, Mike, was so incredibly obnoxious that despite our being stranded without transportation 75 miles from home on a darkening Sunday evening, we quickly decided that there was no way we would be buying a car from this man, even if it meant we had to walk home.  Deep into his oblivious hard sell, however, Mike was already eagerly asking us about our trade-in vehicle.  What sort of maintenance issues did it have, he asked.  What sort of maintenance issues?  It was sitting dead in a mall parking lot at that very moment, as D, poker-faced, replied simply, "Well, it has cracked brake hoses."  Period.  Full stop.  And silence as Mike nods eagerly…
       Why do I tell that story here?  Because it's a story with negative space, a story in which what didn't get said was as important as what did.  Our comedy of errors went on, that Sunday, as we walked out of the car dealership, as it began to drizzle and then to rain, as every car rental place in the city was closed…  There was a point when we sat together on the floor in an aisle of a Blockbuster Video where we had taken refuge, and laughed until the tears came at the thought of the "cracked brake hoses."  We did get home eventually, of course, and live happily ever after, too, but the point here is that in both writing and visual art "negative" space isn't really an absence of something.  It's just a presence of a different sort.
The black of the leaves is the background for the flower, but
the leaves are defined by the white negative space around them.
        When carving a relief block you can think of it as carving away the negative space or as drawing with white.  You can think of the black as the positive or as the negative.  Often black and white are layered so that they are each other's negative spaces.  Sometimes it's clear that I'm depicting a single object and that everything else is negative space, but other times I think of the black and the white, the carved and the uncarved, as equal partners in a dance, interlocking pieces of the whole.   Like two clasped hands filling the spaces between each other, neither one negative space, so the ink and the paper of a block print can work together in partnership.

[Pictures: 1898 Winton Phaeton, rubber block print by AEGN, 2007;
"Goblet Illusion." Weisstein, Eric W. from MathWorld--A Wolfram Web Resource;
Jewelweed, rubber block print by AEGN, 2006.]

1 comment:

  1. So what finally happened? What's the end of the story? Where did you eventually find a dealer from whom to buy a car? Is "negative space", or negative silence, or lack of words tending toward misleading? Not so in a picture, I think. The fact that the old Winton is floating isn't misleading because we are focused on the image of the car and are not expecting to have its surroundings; it isn't trying to tell a story of its surroundings, only its own essential self.

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