Surfaces and Depths

Thoughts inspired by a visit to the Surface exhibition at The [email protected] The Civic, Barnsley.


I recently had the opportunity to visit an art exhibition entitled Surface at The [email protected] The Civic, Barnsley in South Yorkshire. The show, jointly curated by the staff at The [email protected] and Dale Holmes, featured a selection of works in a number of media, ranging from paint to neon lights. You can find the full details about the show on The Civic’s own website, here.


My review of the exhibition was published on the website and can be read here.


Since returning from the show I have begun to think a little more deeply about Surface, the exhibition, and the idea of ‘the surface’ in art more generally. I offer the following thoughts not as some finished thesis or even as an essay in art criticism. Rather, they should be approached as a series of philosophically-informed musings that seek to throw some light into those unseen spaces below and behind the surfaces of art.


It seems to me that in the most mundane and un-theoretical sense art has always been about making things apparent. It is about making things appear visible. When you walk into an art gallery – should you ever have a desire to go to such a place – then, once you’ve braved the foyer, with its array of leaflets and helpful posters, and have negotiated your way past the shop and café, in which places you are tempted to part with your cash, you surely expect to enter an exhibition space in which there are works on display, and at which you can look. You expect to be able to stand, or sit, if there are chairs provided, and stare at a piece. There will be things to look at in the gallery. If there weren’t you would demand answers.


Now, it is the surface of a work of art that performs this task of visibility. It is this surface at which we stare, and whose worth, as critics every one of us, we contemplate and evaluate. We are, when it comes to art, largely superficial. We do, quite literally, judge an artwork by its cover – or, if not its cover exactly, then its skin or outer layer, its painted or polished surface.


There is, inevitably, a more rigorously philosophical sense in which art can be said to be about making things apparent. One powerful version of this argument is elaborated by the twentieth-century German thinker Martin Heidegger. In his essay ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’, which began life as a lecture in 1935, Heidegger argues that what art achieves is a kind of ‘unconcealment’.[1] And what is it that he says art ‘unconceals’? Nothing less than Being itself.[2]


According to this account, what is made apparent when we sit there staring at a painting or a sculpture – whether it be a Michelangelo, Monet or a Van Gogh, which latter is the philosopher’s favoured example – is the very Being of those things depicted. To put Heidegger’s argument back into less confusingly Heideggerian terms, we might say that the surface of the artwork tells us about the things it represents; it shows us hidden depths and truths; it might even show us ‘Truth’ itself.[3]


These are big claims full of big words and self-important capital letters. As such, it is almost inevitable that they are problematic. Heidegger’s account can be deconstructed in all sorts of ways. This is something that another philosopher, Jacques Derrida, has already done, in his book The Truth in Painting.


There is another way of looking at this. We shouldn’t forget that as well as ‘bringing-forth’ things, to use Heidegger’s terms one last time, the artistic surface has for centuries tried to push things back.[4] I do not mean that it tries to makes things obscure, although this is often the case. Nor do I mean that it deliberately seeks to hide things or cover them, although this is also true. No. I’m referring to the way that artists use perspective to create the illusion of depth. The flat canvas can now, despite its shallowness, create the optical illusion of depth. The things depicted on it can recede back to some imagined vanishing point, infinitely distant and ever retreating.


It is something that we’re taught in art lessons at school. Pick a point on the page then run all your lines back to it. Just think of the way that a pair of parallel train tracks, which stay at exactly the same distance from each other down their entire length, seem to come together as they run away from us, down the hill and into the dip, on their way to the next town.


With the advent of 3D technology we will see this illusion of perspective being pulled the other way, so that the vanishing point reaches forward towards us as we sit and stare at the work. In this instance, the surface might become simply a notional middle ground between two horizons.


And then there’s us… the viewers of art, and our critical practice, our habits of looking. Let’s be honest. We are the inheritors of a broad aesthetic and critical tradition that expects us to find deep meaning in a work. I’m not just thinking of Heidegger’s argument here, or that of any other philosopher you could care to name. We are always trying to look beyond the surface, to see what is really ‘meant’ by the artist. And yet in art, as well as in literature, such a model of interpretation has been called into question. This is especially true since the advent of postmodernism, which unapologetically delights in surfaces and refutes the idea of any other significance. In the era of postmodernism we are all sceptical of supposedly deep, or at least ‘deeper’, meanings.


Which leaves us back where we started. Having skimmed across the issues we have returned to the surface which, if truth be told, we have never really left.






[1] Martin Heidegger, ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’, trans. Albert Hofstadter in Basic Writings, revised and expanded edition, ed. David Farrell Krell (London and New York: Routledge, 1993; repr. 2007), p. 161.

[2] Ibid., p. 161.

[3] Ibid., pp. 161-2, pp. 165 ff.

[4] The phrase ‘bringing-forth’ is common in Heidegger’s work. See, for example, Martin Heidegger, ‘The Question Concerning Technology’, trans. William Lovitt in Basic Writings, revised and expanded edition, ed. David Farrell Krell (London and New York: Routledge, 1993; repr. 2007), p. 317.




© James Holden

 Published Monday 5th August 2013