Symbols: Basic Geometric Shapes (square, circle, triangle)

//Symbols: Basic Geometric Shapes (square, circle, triangle)

The geometry in some of the early paintings was informed by exposure to the work of the Japanese painter and mystic, Sengai. This master regularly used these shapes in his work, referring to them as ‘the universal forms’.

The artwork Universal Law, a 175 cm x 240 cm oil on Belgian linen painting from 1986, shows an example of a painting with the recurring motif of these geometric shapes. As the work progressed over the years, these shapes continued to assert themselves as convenient ‘editing’ tools deeply embedded in richly abstract paintings that was being worked on at the time. This had the effect of anchoring the paintings and the vastness of the semi-abstract surface in a way that the current shapes serve to do in this series, with the vastness of the assembled plastic waste as background to these works. This influence continued through to 2009 with the Driftwood Sculpture Trio, a series of driftwood sculptures based on the geometric theme of the symbols.

This envisioned body of work would comprise all the major visual art creative practice elements in which there was proficiency during the course of a career: sculpture, painting, drawing, printmaking, installation and working with found objects. Recurring elements in the work as an environmental artist and painter had also included the three shapes.
During the time spent whilst on a 2015 Churchill Fellowship in Kyoto, there was the opportunity to view ink drawings by Sengai, which were exhibited in Kyoto’s major Art Museum. Seeing these served as a reminder about his work with the geometric shapes and after appreciating their perfection, it began the beginning of their incorporation into the new body of work.

These symbols became a core element of the artistic design of the new sculptures, paintings and prints in a way that exalted the mundane in significant ways and have been used as an editing technique within the work. This may also have the effect of being a foil to the moralistic nuance of the ecological meaning. They ultimately serve as a way of evoking a sense of presence. These recognised shapes are featured in all aspects of art, design and architecture.

Bradley (2010), presented an analysis online with his ‘Meaning of Shapes’:
Triangles can be stable when sitting on their base or unstable when not. They are balanced and can be a symbol for law, science, and religion and are used to convey progression, direction, and purpose. Squares and rectangles are stable. They’re familiar and trusted shapes and suggest honesty. They have right angles and represent order, mathematics, rationality, and formality. Circles have no beginning or end. They represent the eternal whole and in every culture are archetypical forms. They suggest well roundedness and completeness (Bradley 2010).

The meditative infusion into the new work was significantly enhanced by reflections on Basho’s poetry, described here by (Palmer 2001):
Basho almost certainly learnt to meditate under a Zen master and direct references to Buddhism are scattered throughout his verse’.

The anniversary of the Death of the Buddha;
From wrinkled praying hands, 
The sound of the rosaries. – Basho
(From The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches. p.119).
Basho’s verse often points to Buddhism – awareness of impermanence, the non-existence of the self, the emptiness’ (Palmer 2001, p. P.54).

Plato (as cited in 2009 Reprint), spoke at length about these shapes. In ‘Timaeus’ he stated his philosophical view that universal shapes can be reduced to a square, triangle and a circular shape in the form of a tetrahedron. Plato presented an elaborate account of the formation of the universe, which had him deeply impressed with the order and beauty of the universe. He believed that the beautiful orderliness of the universe was not only the manifestation of the intellect; it was also the model for rational souls to rationalise and emulate. For Plato, these symbols were a highly effective editing tool through which the viewer might simplify a highly abstract surface. Examples seen in the 24 prints that were created as a core element of the PhD, illustrate the print component effectively portraying the editing process described.

For the sculptural body of work created for my PhD, rather than offering the found plastics that are raw material as an assemblage on the floor, or as a series of wall works behind Perspex, they have been constructed into the geometric shapes. It was elected to present them as sculptural works that would engage the viewer on numerous levels.

There have been many interpretations of the symbology of symbols, Liungman (1991) proposed that circles have some of the following characteristics:

Circles belong to the oldest ideograms and have been dated to the period immediately after the emergence of the simplest conventionalised representations of humans and animals found on the walls of prehistoric caves and rock faces and has been used in systems of writing for more than 5000 years. In astrology, the circle represents the eternal, endless, without beginning or end and the spirit. In today’s Western Ideography the circle stands for all possibilities (within a given system) (Liungman 1991, p. 274)

Being aware that the shapes have these associated histories, as described by Liungman, provided an added confidence that they have the capacity to act as an appropriate hook in order to work in an aesthetic sense, drawing the viewer into the beauty of the sculptural pieces and, later—or simultaneously in some instances—the ecological message would unfold, revealing its messages and resonating at various levels with the viewer. Ultimately it was hoped that the viewer could experience an expanded space of awareness whilst standing in front of, and having a physical interaction with, the work. The obvious use of the glowing halo like imagery radiating from the edges of these shapes, seen in the print and painting components of this body of work are the most prominent examples of this artistic intention. Further interpretations of the triangle and the square by Liungman (1991) include the following statement:
The triangle is first and foremost associated with the holy, divine number of three. It is through the tension of opposites that the new is created, the third. It is also a symbol for power, and as such is related to danger. It also means success, prosperity and safety The square is an expression of the two dimensions that represent a surface. The square means land, field, ground or the element earth. The Egyptians used it in their belief system of Hieroglyphs, where it was supposed to have meant realisation or materialisation (Liungman 1991, pp. 306, 9).

The question remains: why are the three shapes integrated into impressions of rubbish? We cannot avoid rubbish—any more than we can avoid universal shapes. Rubbish is universal in our contemporary society and the connections of this universality can no longer be avoided or understated, especially when we, collective humankind, are acutely aware of the issue and our contribution to it. The fact is that these plastics, by-products of our consumerism, are making their way into our oceans, being ingested by fish and then, when we eat the fish, we become part of this chain of toxicity. Placing the shapes over rubbish brings people face to face with realities of their own existence, with the fact that the rubbish they threw away and thought they could forget is actually right there in the room with them. In stating this, it is not being said that consumption is a bad thing, that if we have less stuff are we somehow better people, as only someone who knows very little about anthropology or history can make this claim with any seriousness. The reason Marx was not a romantic like Rousseau (Berlin 2003), is because he saw scarcity as leading to violence rather than being a more moral state. As we consume we inevitably have an excess of undesirable material – rubbish – what is being done in this work is to deploy it benignly and aesthetically. There is a taking of the unwanted and the ugly and then reveal it to be beautiful and even ‘useful’ in a non-utilitarian way.

There is also another wide-reaching reality in play; the shapes and the plastic are both universal. People easily recognise these three symbols. They are familiar and comfortable, each with their own resonance. As such, they draw in each person who views the works for different reasons. The three shapes are precise, and human-imposed. In this work they reflect the irregular plastics on which they are superimposed and bring together those fragmented shapes. Incorporating them into the new body of work, particularly in the fusion of digital and woodblock printing, elevated the importance and the relevance of primordial geometry to contemporary time, place and culture.

These shapes have been described as having universal elements. Cooper (1978) argued the circle as having the properties of being a universal symbol containing totality, wholeness and eternity (Cooper 1978, p. 36). His further analysis of the square and triangle broadens the understanding of them having a universal quality and relevance, and it is also due to these inherent properties that provide a personal attraction to using them as fundamental elements in these artworks. He states that the square shape represents the earth, static perfection, integration, integrity, morality and limitation (Cooper 1978, p. 157). In reference to the triangle he noted that it represented the threefold nature of the universe; heaven, earth, man; father, mother, child, man as body, soul and spirit, the mystic number three; hence the fundamental representation of surface; ‘Surface is composed of triangles’ (Plato); the equilateral triangle depicts completion (Cooper 1978, p. 179).

When discussing universal shapes in art and nature, Harris (2010) proposed that using them while creating art can be seen as an attempt to reduce composition to a basic set of shapes and he acknowledged that it contributed to the birth of abstract art. ‘Cezanne thought that for painting nature, three were sufficient: cylinder, sphere and cone’ (Harris 2010, p. 11). Harris (2010) sees that when understanding art it has to be paired with having an analysis of its essential organisational forms and that this is where we can discover the essence of the art.

In terms of psychological symbolism, Jung (1964) elaborated on his understanding of the circle symbol when he stated:
Whether the symbol of the circle appears in primitive sun worship or modern religion, in myths or dreams, in the mandalas drawn by Tibetan monks, in the ground plans of cities, or in the spherical concepts of early astronomers, it always points to the single most vital aspect of life – its ultimate wholeness. The abstract circle also features in Zen painting. Speaking of a picture by the famous Zen priest Sengai, another Zen master writes “In the Zen sect, the circle represents enlightenment. It symbolises human perfection” (Jung 1964, p. 240).

The reference to Zen and the circle representing the state of transcendence, supports the reference in my own work to Sengai and his work with these shapes, which has been a core element influencing the current work. The expression of a deeper meditative element in the work was triggered by the Japanese experience, which drew a greater interest in Zen meditation and the poetry of Basho and the art of Sengai, both being recognized as having attained the state of spiritual awakening.

Visual artists have also made statements about the significance of these universal shapes, including Vasily Kandinsky, from the Bauhaus, 1922–33, who stated in 1930:
The circle . . . is the synthesis of the greatest oppositions. [It] combines the concentric and the eccentric in a single form, and in equilibrium. Of the three primary forms [triangle, square, circle], it points most clearly to the fourth dimension (Kandinsky).

The shapes run through every aspect of the new body of work, like a stream re-emerging from the dark earth, consequently, their presence symbolises the evolution of the artist through a time of transition and expansion.

At the same time, there are alternate views on the three forms and their relative importance or perceived lack of significance, which include the following examples of differing thoughts and realities. Here, where the ideas of the Gestalt theorists proposed a primary status of the square, circle and triangle, over other shapes were described as ‘good shapes’, which was widely accepted.

However, Roberson, Davidoff and Shapiro (2002), argued:
Rosch (1973), found that speakers of a language lacking terms for any geometric shape nevertheless learnt paired-associates to these ‘good’ shapes more easily than to asymmetric variants. A cross-cultural investigation sought to replicate Rosch’s findings with the Himba of Northern Namibia who also have no terms in their language for the supposedly basic shapes of circle, square and triangle. It was concluded that there is no necessary salience for circles, squares and triangles. Indeed, we argue for the opposite because these shapes are rare in nature. The general absence of straight lines and symmetry in the perceptual environment should rather make circles, squares and triangles unusual, therefore, less likely to be used as prototypes in categorization tasks (Roberson, Davidoff & Shapiro 2002, p. 29).

While the contradiction exemplified by the Northern Namibian’s cultural views, evidenced in their not having any terms for these three geometric shapes, is appreciated, the target audience for this work is the Western observer, who is more likely to be both the observer and potential collector of this art.


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