The Nature of Shapes

Rebecca Norton is a Brooklyn-based artist whose work ranges from paintings to sculpture and video. Rebecca's work shows complex movement through color and space, drawing inspiration from geometry. She uses equations specifically from affine geometry (parallel projection from one plane to the other) which add a sense of dimension and creates a world where objects seem to appear suspended in space, leaving the viewer in a state of wonder. In the variety of ways that Rebecca uses to express herself, each serves as an inspirational work of art. 

Enclosed Operetta, oil on linen, tryptic (3 canvases), 64" x 27" each, 2014

Enclosed Operetta, oil on linen, tryptic (3 canvases), 64" x 27" each, 2014

AH: I know that you have lived in LA and now NYC, do you find the art world to be much different to navigate in one place than the other?


RN: I do not think the worlds of art are much different coast to coast. In both cities, emerging artists are creating spaces to gather and share work while established galleries, with their national and international art stars, keep an eye on the emerging scenes to see who may hold promise for their standards of artistic professionalism. During my time in Los Angeles I felt that, for the most part, the art scene was not ready or willing to embrace the kind of work I do. This has not been the case in New York. It took hardly any time or effort to find people who are genuinely interested in my practice. Additionally, in New York, I have found myself engaged in more critical discussions and theories that are beyond questions concerning the art market and academic art history. Perhaps I’ve just met a larger number writers living here than on the west coast, or maybe their publications are easier to come by than those who are living and working in LA. This has been important in the evolution of my studio and writing projects. Additionally, being in conversation with individuals whose interests overlap mine has provided me with some validation as to what I do. My worries about becoming some estranged thinker tinkering with zany obsessions in perspectival geometries has, in the last few years, subsided, at least a bit. I don’t think I have a large audience, but given the depth of interest from the contacts I’ve made, I’ve come to respect the idea of being a niche artist. It’s a position that I liken to an author or illustrator of a weird genre, rather than a professional visual arts exhibitor in the broader art world. I occasionally go out to openings and museums, and I keep up with articles published in art journals and magazines, but, overall, I don’t concern myself too much with what's happening in the markets or with artists dominating the contemporary scene. It takes up time that I would rather spend with my work and the work of like-minded people. That being said, I should like to point out that many of my contacts have not come by way of being present in this city or LA. They are people whose writings I find while researching and whom I’ve reached out to via email. But, as for living in New York, it just so happens that they either live here, or visit more often than they do Los Angeles, providing me with opportunities to meet face to face.

AH: In what ways does your work represent the times we are living in?

RN: One simple answer would be to say that the technology I have been using in some of the digital pieces dates the work. The house scans used to compose the video "Wandering Through Childhood" were taken with a mobile scanner device, the Structure Sensor. I use a version that has not been updated since I received the scanner for Christmas, 2014. This piece of equipment gave me the opportunity to explore a new kind of documentation that I think will become more common as virtual reality devices make their way into our homes. The glitches in the meshes made from the Structure Sensor scans create some strange and wonderful moments wherein spaces and objects do not line up. It humors me to know that Wandering Through Childhood will look behind the times as advances in technology improve a mobile scanner’s ability to map our world in dense geometries.

Two Dogs, digital print, 18" x 27", 2015

Two Dogs, digital print, 18" x 27", 2015

The 2-dimensional work maps perspectival geometries that, I believe, can help us imagine objects and spaces endowed with richer topologies and complex movements. I try to compose visual representations of complex systems that I read about in science and mathematical publications by contemporary thinkers, not only as a means to bridge a discussion with them but also to extend their studies into elements which can later be understood in visual terms. For example, according to the German-born French mathematician Alexander Grothendiek, by emphasizing the primacy of space over a point, a mathematical architecture for a point could be visualized in such a way that our thoughts about the meaning of a physically spatial location is expanded.  A model such as this proposes that the significance of a point depends on the geography and the maps that surround it. Through such models, we can begin to assemble a vision of an interconnected world. Such thinking may change how we consider and construct spaces of social interaction. Overall, I think this reflects a shift in how we are thinking about our presence as humans with our environments -- we want to understand the relationships between the local and global, and our impact as active beings in our communities.

Mer, oil on canvas, 14" x 14", 2012

Mer, oil on canvas, 14" x 14", 2012

AH: How do you use the elements in your paintings to communicate a message?

RN: I am uncomfortable with the idea that my work is meant to convey a message. I work with ideas, and try to visualize complex spaces and movements to see what kinds of activities will emerge in the process. This, I think, is different from a practice imbued with symbolic elements meant to be decoded. The paintings are composed with generic elements—line, color, light and space. They are meant to be contemplative, and most refer to a subject or place that has in one way or another induced a moment’s silence in me.

The first paintings were experimentations to see what kind of compositions affine geometry produced when mapped and painted onto the surface of a canvas. These geometries, which map the “free movements” of an object, produce an asymmetrical composition. According to Gottfried Semper, in his book "Style in the Technical and Tectonic Arts" (1860-62), an asymmetrical pattern on a symmetrical object appears to force its way out of the constraints of the symmetrical border. In the paintings, the geometries were not only highly active, due the this contrast noted by Semper, but also, in some cases, appeared to distort the rectilinear frame of the object. Through the years I moved from working solely with the object as subject of optical illusion to the object in its environment to see how the object and its surface activity interact with elements in a physical location. One instance of this occurs when architectural shadows drift across the surface of a painting. Parallel lines cast by architectural shadows causes the geometries to appear as if they are moving and shifting. This caused me to wonder how the surfaces of larger solid structures would appear if their facades were painted with these abstractions. Would shadows from structures and objects in vicinity to one another cause the appearance of a solid mass to dissolve into its environment?

Each painting asks a new question. The progression of the work has been that one leads to the next and so on. I suppose you could say that I am interested in opening doors for perceptual play and insight. Also, I like to remind people that painting and mathematics, particularly geometry, never stop losing their wonder. All it takes is an investment of time, sincerity, and diligent practice.

AH: How would you describe your process of starting with your initial concept and how you navigate yourself through the work? Is your process very structured or loose?

RN: It's both structured and loose. Each piece starts with a specific generative set of rules based on its reference. For instance, while painting When Riding I was thinking about the acceleration and vibrations one feels when riding a motorcycle. To capture the sense of speed, a very small affine constellation was drawn near the center left of the painting. This was to serve as a vanishing point on an invisible horizon, the lines emanating from it creating a vectorial space that sucks a person in. Colors from the southern Californian landscapes (where the motor rides were taken)  are painted around this “point” and expand out towards the edges of the canvas. The blue abstraction on the center right is supposed to represent the seat of the bike, vibrating and somewhat solid as if it were a structure that a person could feel one’s weight on. The iridescent whites on the lower third of the composition rotate as would the wheels of a vehicle, hardly perceptible because the wheels, driving us forward on some afternoons up to 150 miles per hour, would feel as if they simply vanished beneath the seat.

When Riding, oil on canvas, 72" x 26.5, 2011

When Riding, oil on canvas, 72" x 26.5, 2011

The piece sounds very thought-out, but I just gave you the overview of what is occurring in the finished composition. I never know what a painting will look like when I begin. I never use a computer to draw out a composition or play with color. I measure distances in a blank canvas space, abstract objects into basic geometric compositions, imagine light sources, and from there delineate the structures of lines in a way that I think may best present an interpretation of an experience. I’ve been mapping certain geometries for over five years now, and still I never know exactly where each set of parallel lines will be set until after the space is mapped out. From the very beginning I start with unpredictable arrangements. Color makes the process more capricious.

AH: Can you describe your style evolution?

RN: My style has changed over the years. As an undergrad, my interest began with still life. I enjoyed painting the studio set-ups in the classroom. My favorite still lifes included patterned fabrics, reflective surfaces and intense lighting arranged to produce dramatic effects. When given a project to work on outside of class, I would often choose to paint interiors of a room, landscapes or night scenes. I once spent a month painting a scene from the same parking spot outside a Krispy Kreme donut shop. My goal was to capture the intensity of the neon signs of the donut shop and a distant billboard lit up against the night sky. As a bonus, I treated myself to a donut every evening I worked. Another time I set up my apartment as I imagined Vermeer would. Each object, angle and distance was meticulously measured and every tiny bit of color my eyes could perceive was added to the painting.

2nd Street Apartment, oil on canvas, 24" x 20", 2002

2nd Street Apartment, oil on canvas, 24" x 20", 2002

For my BFA thesis I decided to do something completely different. During my last two semesters of school I would meet with a woman living in an assistant care apartment once a week. Her name was Carol Cooley and she loved to draw (she passed away ten years ago). Carol suffered trauma from a car accident at the age of five. She was well in her fifties when we met, but, having suffered brain injury, her mental and physical development had severely been handicapped. I soon came to understand how her sketches reflected different narratives in her life—what her roommate did, how she liked pizza, what she hoped to do, etc. At the time, I was wanting my work to make a difference in another person’s life. For the BFA exhibition I copied Carol’s drawings onto my canvases and added my own interpretations of her representations to the compositions. The narrative was a shared one, not just about myself, but myself with this other person. There was nothing made up about it. Carol came to the opening and was able to see her original drawings displayed alongside the paintings. Her excitement was the highlight of my night.

Journals, collaboration with Carol Cooley, BFA exhibition, Allen R. Hite Gallery, University of Louisville, KY, 2004

Journals, collaboration with Carol Cooley, BFA exhibition, Allen R. Hite Gallery, University of Louisville, KY, 2004

I moved to Los Angeles after I received my BFA from the University of Louisville, Kentucky. For a year I painted porcelain horses against red and gold backgrounds. I was attempting to capture fragility and power in an image. After a few months I met an Armenian painter named Vahe Barbarian. He lived on the next block and invited me over to paint with him in his studio. Vahe works in an expressionistic, poetic style akin to Arshile Gorky. For over a year I explored gestural and bodily movement, abstraction and poetic expression. By the time I started Art Center, fall 2007, I was again painting interiors and landscapes, but this time less traditionally and more abstractly. As I delved into abstraction, I came to learn that what I was looking for was not a representation of a thing, per se, but a painting that evokes sensation.


In 2009 I began studying a geometry that I still work with today. It fulfilled my need to organize complex perspectival spaces with which to explore basic elements of painting—color, light, surface, space, movement. The geometry diagrams affine translations. The word affine is used in reference to a woman in a philosophical text, and it was in that text that I first came across this term. I wanted to know why the authors chose to define a woman—mother—an affine, but could not find a satisfying answer in mathematics and philosophy alone. Studying its visual expression was a way for me to contemplate its literary use. As in my undergrad, I was again investigating the expression of another woman—only this time she was much more abstract and distant.

Big Horse, oil on canvas, 12" x 15", 2005

Big Horse, oil on canvas, 12" x 15", 2005

I do not think it difficult to trace a trajectory through my various styles and interests. Landscapes, architecture, patterns and light always served as focal points in my work. Palettes of pristine whites and blues—similar to porcelain horses—have dominated the geometric compositions for some time. The asymmetrical compositions exert a force-like power against constraints, whilst the intricate color arrangement feel as if they may break at any moment. I spend a lot of time researching mathematics and spatial concepts. When exploring the body in painting today, I think more about the mathematical architecture of gestural movements and how our actions are expressions of a web of connections—memory, reflex, environment, thoughts, etc. I am also very interested in Jean Piaget’s studies of spatial intelligence and its development in children. As I read his work I recalled my own experiences working with Carol in undergrad. Through the years, my research has helped me construct a comprehensive understanding of affine geometry, including its properties and place in our perceptions of space. Through this I am able to consider the significance of these perceptual spaces within the evolution of my work.

AH: Are the shadow skulpt sculptures recent work? Did you come to a point where you felt like you could express yourself differently in 3 dimensional form versus 2 dimensional?

RN: I experiment with sculpture when I can. Painting is great, but nothing pleases me more than a day spent working with power tools. Since I was a child I have asked for a tool belt for christmas. I don’t think any family member takes me seriously when I say this, even today.

The Shadow Skulpts are new. I began designing these pieces in November 2014. The shadow play I witnessed on my painting in the summer of 2014 led me to want to work further with the idea of shadows—the history of shadows in art, the orthogonal geometry of shadows, their representation of environment and, as in the case of the sun, their representation of time. Not only has painting’s origins been attributed to tracing shadows, but the origins of sculpture have been attributed to a shadow as well. According to Pliny the Elder, the first sculpture was made as a relief of a shadow drawn on a wall. After working with rules of parallelism and affine geometry in the paintings, it felt like a natural step to extend my experiments with orthogonal projection by producing relief sculptures of shadows. The piece originated with a silly idea I had, inspired by the Billy character in the Family Circus cartoons. In some comic frames, Billy is illustrated as moving through a space—hopping and moving somewhat randomly through a house or landscape. It occurred to me that the dash marks of his trajectory represent moments in time, but they are all the same length. The time it takes to get from the beginning of his wander to the end would be measured in speed, but, as I interpreted it, the dashes represent the velocity of his body moving in space because they are consistent in size and indicate the shortest distance between two more narrowly measured points. Shadows too are cast at a constant speed, the speed of light, and also project velocity. I began to think, what would the cartoon look like if the dashes were replaced with shadows, and how would it change our reading of the place Billy wanders through? For one, the shadows would indicate the lights surrounding him. They would also tell us the expression of his body as he moved through space, conjuring up relations between him and his immediate environment. If drawn in the cartoon, these body projections would produce a strange, continuous amorphous substrate made of dark colors, and without mass.

The Shadow Sculpts are a tiny step towards thinking the continuous “Billy Shadow” in a three-dimensional form. I wanted to visualize this shadow as a chimera that potentially extends infinitely yet in integrals. Lengths of its appearance would depend on the time of day and/or the amount of time spent in an environment lit with alternative light sources. However, I first needed to create a basic model of a still object, rather than a moving one, to limit the conditions and begin with a very basic idea. I chose to start with differences in an object’s projected shadows based only on the migration of the sun in one day. The object used for the Shadow Sculpts is a crude three-dimensional model of an affine sculpture that I have yet to fabricate. The model was sculpted in Sketch-up, and in this program I was able set a sun path and trace the shadows of my object.

Shadow Skulpts, plexiglass, 28" x 21" x 20", 2015

Shadow Skulpts, plexiglass, 28" x 21" x 20", 2015

The digital affine sculpture is tied to the geometry of the paintings. I had been wanting to realize these spaces in a solid form, as either pure abstract space or an object translating infinitely through affine spaces, but still I am unsure just how I would like to do this. The shadow castings propose a new problem for tracing an object moving through infinity. Painting, for me, is limited due to the constraints of the flat plane. Sculpture allows for more free reign in this project.

AH: I see sculptural elements in your videos, do the videos influence the sculptures or vice versa? Do you feel the videos will impact the paintings?

RN: The videos are the latest work. They’ve come after the sculptures but, in many ways, will be useful as for future shadow tracings. In Sketch-up I traced shadows of a still object, but in the virtual model of a world, such as the ones constructed for the videos, I can lay out a trajectory of a body and change its gestures as it wanders through a space. The tracing of its shadows will indicate the lighting arrangements and sun paths of the virtual environment. In this way, I may begin on that messier chimera imagined initially as a Billy making Billy paths in the Family Circus cartoon.

As for the paintings, one can see aesthetic similarities between them and the virtual environment assembled from scanned room captures. In the past, I had talked about the sensibility of the vectoring geometric patterns as one that imitates movements in digital imagery and animations. Part of this revelation has come from conversations with programmers, though for the most part this has been part of my thoughts concerning my affine mapping since late 2009. The very first gouache studies looked to me like digitized transformers.  

I am not certain how the videos will impact the paintings. I’m only just now getting back to working on canvas. Some elements of the video and room captures will surely enter the work. The paintings have not directly influenced the video except, maybe, in the play of color. I am a colorist and work to intensify activity of the painted spaces with complex color arrangements. Color theory is definitely considered when composing light in the virtual environments.

Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches, gouache on paper, 12" x 10", 2013

Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches, gouache on paper, 12" x 10", 2013

AH: Do you have any sort of unrealized projects that haven’t yet been brought to light?

RN: I have a few. I’ve mentioned the sculptural shadow chimera already. Another is a large installation of paintings in an architectural space that would maximize the play of shadow lines  drifting across surfaces throughout a day. This would allow the paintings to work as sites, wherein they could function as open sets for environmental interactions.

AH: Do you currently have any shows going on or anything coming up in the near future?

RN: I have some paintings and prints exhibiting in the group show Urban Lawns at MIM Gallery in Los Angeles, CA. The show will be up until October 8. For anyone interested, please visit www.mim.gallery for location details.

During the month of October and mid-through November, visitors to The Yard’s new location at Herald Square in Manhattan will have the opportunity to interact with Sticks, a digital piece made in collaboration with Eddie Elliot. This opens in conjunction with the ADAPT Conference being held at The Yard, October 1-3, Work at the Yard. Sticks originated from a desire to observe the pragmatic nature of affine geometry through the constraints of a mathematical program. The interactive site projected at The Yard allows users to see and direct various translations of a geometric diagram following the rules of parallelism that apply to affine geometry. In addition to interacting with the diagram, there is also the option to send one’s favorite composition to a file that will be arranged with other saved files into a complex composite of digital mappings. This extends the collaborative aspect of Sticks to a larger audience.

In November or December, Network Ecologies, a Duke University digital humanities project, will be beta testing a collaborative “Networked Publication” that I’ve contributed to. In addition to my essay and annotations on other contributor’s writing, Network Ecologies will also be publishing my digital video documentary of their Arts at the Edge exhibition (showcasing works by myself and artists Shane and Karin Denson). Readers can follow Network Ecologies at http://sites.fhi.duke.edu/ecologyofnetworks/ for updates and information.

To see more of Norton's work, check out her website www.rebeccajnorton.com