Gallery Guide - Subtle Tensions
All works of art exist on the spectrum between tension and balance in both their expressive content and their use of visual elements to portray that content. When creating works of art, artists must decide where their works will land along that spectrum. When approaching content, artists think about whether their audience will experience the peace of a pleasant and unchallenging content (think beautiful landscapes or floral paintings) or the anxiety of challenging content. Then, through visual elements, artists decide whether a work should have strong visual balance or, alternatively, a strong dynamic moving toward tension. This can affect viewers’ perception of content.
If a work is very balanced, such as a work that is visually symmetrical, it might become too peaceful and not capture a sustained interest. If a work is too full of tension, with perpetual strong angles, extreme color contrasts and a chaotic composition, that also may lead to a short and “unpleasant” viewing experience. Most artists try to create works that exist somewhere between an extreme equilibrium and an extreme unease, but lean toward one or the other.
Artists have a number of tools, called visual elements, to utilize in creating works that express their intent. They can use line that is peaceful, flowing, undulating, mostly horizontal and vertical, (balance) or instead line that is jagged, forceful, sharp and angular, and diagonal. (tension) Color can influence the mood of the work as well. Strong dissimilar colors create tension, while color families (those closest to each other on the color wheel) create a sense of balance. Shapes can be sharp and spiky, (tension) or soft and organic. (balance) Any type of strong contrast, whether in line, shape, color or value, creates tension. Alternatively, less contrast creates a more peaceful mood.
Finally, content and meaning of course determine whether a work is on the spectrum toward balance or tension. When an artist wants to challenge our thinking, usually they use visual elements that elevate our sense of uncertainty, tension and anxiety. When an artist wants to convey beauty, that artist will likely use visual elements that support a more comfortable experience.
The exhibition Subtle Tensions presents works that at first appear to contain an element of peace, but both artists Frances Cox and Megan Greene challenge our visual perception by the use of subtlety in both content and visual elements. Both artists use illogical phenomena so that what might appear to be reality is shifted into imagination. Whether their forms are based on still life (Cox) or more abstractly organic subject matter (Greene), the images make sense only in our imagination. Images appear to be spatially accurate, yet cannot really exist as depicted; our belief system is subtly challenged when viewing what are works of great beauty.
Frances Cox often combines images of natural things with things that are manmade: a tree with cloth; fruit and plants with a vase and table; what might be pods with arched architectural forms. Organic shapes abound, whether natural or man-made but these are often contrasted with straight geometric forms. Cox uses gentle and soft distortion to create forms that are tender and flowing, not really disturbing, but yet not realistic or expected. The images have references to real things, but are abstracted in their reduction to simple organic shapes that interlock with other organic shapes. It is as if our world is slightly topsy-turvy, but in a way that delights rather than disturbs.
Cox also uses color to her advantage by contrasting soft, muted and subdued colors that are in color families with a bright and vivid color that draws the viewer’s attention by its very contrast. Her sense of color is very sophisticated, using unexpected combinations that both achieve balance and tension. Shapes in the works have an almost cartoony appearance, bulbous and curvy forms adding to the subtle tension. While her subject matter is calm and peaceful, her visual elements challenge that easy-going balance. Her work skirts the fine line between the two concepts of balance and tension, creating a slippery elusive relationship to our expectations. That is what makes her work so powerful.
Megan Greene approaches her works with a similar stretch of the imagination. Her colored pencil works are drawn with a realistic space, and yet the viewer cannot recognize actual realistic imagery. There appears to be a landscape space, but these are not filled with trees, hills, mountains or sea; instead the space is filled with organic, wavy and geometric abstract shapes that remind us of things found in nature. The forms, based loosely on real organic forms from nature, suggest microscopic enlargements of natural things, whether flora or fauna. The meanings and imagery are elusive, prodding our imaginations. Indeed, there is a surreal edge to these works.
Greene works in colored pencil, with great technical prowess. She uses the subtle transitions possible with these almost transparent colors, and layers them for great spatial effect. In addition, the colors are beautiful, contrasting warm intense colors with more subdued cooler tones. She uses strong contrast of value to create a suggested three-dimensional space as well, leading the viewer to question what is reality and what is not. The works make sense only if we stretch our imaginations to peruse what appear to be “other-worldly phenomena”, as suggested by the artist’s statement on her work. These drawings combine both a grasp of real space with the subtle tension of the unknown. They evoke our curiosity and our admiration, as does the best art.
Both Cox and Greene use subtle tension in their works to challenge our perceptions of reality. And both do that with works that are beautiful and curious, evolving from their understanding of transforming realistic forms into those that intrigue our imagination. What appears to please our eye at first glance forces us to look more closely and experience works that challenge and enrich us.
When I look at plant forms, I view them as botanical singularities having the characteristics of other living things. I transfer to plants metaphors for human feelings and appearances. Developing the background landscapes with colors, patterns and personal language, I believe that these elements also evoke a real sense of the different levels and layering of time and space.
Frances Cox has exhibited in many group shows and regional juried exhibitions, receiving many purchase awards from the Midwest Museum of American Art, and has work in the permanent collections of the South Bend Museum of Art, the Midwest Museum of American Art and the Freeport Museum of Art. Her solo exhibits include those at the Chicago Cultural Center, South Bend Museum of Art, Jan Cicero Gallery, Freeport Museum of Art, and the Illinois Institute of Art.
Her work is represented by Hofheimer Gallery in Chicago and Ferrera Gallery in Three
I construct my drawings with layers of colored pencil, in a process that is both slow and improvisational. My formal language includes rays, waves, hairs and orbs, as well as abstracted landforms and flora. Such parts combine to form an indeterminate land-space, a scene of otherworldly phenomena.
Based in Chicago, Megan Greene received her MFA from Rutgers, State University of New Jersey, and a BFA from the University of Notre Dame. Recent exhibitions included the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo; Regards, Chicago; Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago; Katharine Mulherin, Toronto; and Loudhailer, Los Angeles. Greene is represented by Regards in Chicago.
Still Life of Swamp
colored pencil and collage on paper
31 1/8 x 23 7/8 inches
An Ear in a Pond
colored pencil, ink, and collage on paper
32 1/2 x 24 inches
Our Heads are Round
colored pencil, collage and ink on paper
29 3/4 x 22 7/8 inches