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Art and ambiguity

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Artist Shirazeh Houshiary remarked that there is a difference between art and advertising. Advertising, she says, tells us what to see. Art, in contrast, poses a question. It has no single “correct” interpretation, but instead allows for ambiguity. In this way, it enables us to discover something new.

"Surfer at Steamer Lane," 8in x 6in oil on panel

When I was first learning to paint, I focused on building my craft. My objective was to depict the world clearly in order to communicate a certain idea. But over time, I’ve shifted away from this direct approach and more towards the idea of ambiguity. After all, when an art piece is very straightforward, if it holds just one meaning, then once you understand the message you reach a dead end. However, when a work is ambiguous, it is full of possibility. You as the viewer get to participate in the work, to find your own story. You can look at the same piece again and again and come away with new insights, since every time you see it with new eyes.

A study of the fog over Mt. Tam, 8in x 8in oil on panel

I’ve increasingly brought this concept into my recent work. In my series on the northern California landscape, mountains, sky, and trees overlap and intersect, their boundaries suggested but not clearly defined. Shapes are reminiscent of clouds and trees but not fully resolved. I find the overall motif of the landscape draws me in, but it is the more mysterious passages that keep me looking, searching for new discoveries to arise.

Landscape studies of northern California


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