Disentangling a Figure-Ground Relationship


I am a generative artist, creating digital visual art with hand-coded algorithms. For a general statement about my work, please see my About page.

This introduction is the first in a short series of essays supporting my launch of (Dis)entanglement on Art Blocks. Future writing will explore the various generative features found in the art, from both a thematic and technical view, as well as some influences on my art, from generative artists in the 1960s to ASCII artists in the 1990s. 


(Dis)entanglement is an algorithm that explores the many ways that couples become intertwined with one another throughout the course of a relationship. While developing this work, I was attempting to address two challenges in my life.

The first was the straight-forward technical and artistic challenge of transitioning from my past work creating very complex, detailed, processor intensive algorithms in C++ to the less forgiving browser-based world of javascript. With this transition I also wanted to focus on a concept that was more direct in its message. It needed to fit into the limited attention span of online media and not just the deliberate studying eye of a gallery visitor.

I found inspiration through another life challenge – that of navigating divorce after a 20-year relationship with two young children. Our lives had become so intertwined over time that the process of separating everything we shared — property, parenting, friends, memories, and much more — felt monumental. I usually develop visual motifs very gradually over time through experimentation, but this one came to me very suddenly in the form of an idea and an initial sketch.

Initial (Dis)entanglement sketch

Gestalt Psychology

Of course, the idea of two mirrored faces looking at each other is not itself new. As a student of cognitive science, I became familiar with the Gestalt Psychologists and the figure-ground explorations of Edgar John Rubin, which they adopted. Rubin’s Vase is a classic image that any art major can readily discuss with any psych major.

The original “Vase” figure from Edgar Rubin’s Synsoplevede Figurer, 1915

Positives and Negatives

I set out dwelling on what I thought of as the negative feelings that come from a breakup: frustration, disappointment, self-doubt, chaos, uncertainty. I even wanted to title the work “Broken Vase”. But as I started exploring ways to add generative variation to the basic visual concept, I kept seeing the two figures more as a couple diving headlong into each other, in spite of the messiness. It was cathartic to think about all of these feelings as two sides of the same coin. Love is chaotic, uncertain, and lined with frustration. Any honest depiction of a lasting relationship should include these qualities, but it’s up to the viewer to assign a value to them. The connections tying a couple together can be seen as either a positive space or a negative space, figure or ground.