Can texture in art affect meaning? Can we attribute to art a specific meaning created from this basic element of artistic practice, instead of from a combination of discreet elements each art piece contains? This feature aims at answering these questions but before turning to concrete examples, it is important to chart out what is texture in art and how it is defined and also what types of texture are so far discerned in art theory.
At the core of understanding texture stands the sense of touch. What can we feel by applying touch to different surfaces is one of the basic forms of communication between our bodies and other objects, organisms and sometimes even artworks. Texture stands for a surface of an object, its tactile quality but also the visual effect it can produce. This duality between the sense of physical touch and visual observation led to the discernment of different forms of texture in theory. What does texture mean in art is roughly compartmentalized in tactile, visual, natural, artificial and hypertexture. From choosing different materials to optical illusions created through their manipulation, and artificial production, texture in art is an element that has equal significance in meaning production along with line, color, shape or space.
Visual or implied texture refers to the texture in art that cannot be felt by touch, but which resemblance is instead achieved through the masterful use of artistic tools and materials. It is linked with flat surfaces and is most notably achieved in painting, although some sculptures also create an illusion of different textures. Drawings can also create a textural illusion of some other material, but the effect is never fully complete without the use of color. Tactile or actual texture in contrast to visual is not optically sensed, but can be felt with our sense of touch. It is one of the fundamental elements of three-dimensional art and relates to the used materials, such as marble, brass, bronze, steel, plaster, and many more. The processes used in creating sculptures affect the way texture is achieved, and range from casting, welding, carving, to polishing, sanding or tapping. Natural textures are the ones already existent, while artificial texture is achieved through different manipulations of materials. Hypertexture is defined as “a realistic simulated surface texture produced by adding small distortions across the surface of an object.”
Among the artists who explore the possibility of a flat surface to achieve tactile effects and bring texture in art to a new level are hyperrealists. Hyperrealism as an art movement developed from, and is considered a continuation of Photorealism. A difference between the two movements came with technological development, when hyperrealists were suddenly able to capture more detailed images of reality than their precursors, and to transform them from photos into paintings. Often unusual combinations and emotive background of represented objects put them aside from photorealist veristic and emotionally cold renderings of reality. Texture on their paintings is represented in such a way as to completely trick the eye, and the meaning and significance of these works rely heavily on the textural effects. The hyperrealistic effects these paintings have inscribed the meaning into everyday objects elevating them from the level of the ordinary into the symbols and archetypes of different social and cultural models. Audrey Flack is the artist who works in this style, and her representations of feminine paraphernalia have been described as the feminist commentaries on contemporary position of women.
Gottfried Helnwein’s grisaille Epiphany I (Adoration of the Magi) is a contemporary take on a biblical Nativity theme, where Magi are replaced by the Schutzstaffel “SS” officers. The hyperrealist take by Helnwein and textural mastery he achieved has a particular importance regarding the topic. Creating a realistic texture of the represented human bodies tricks the viewer into believing that she sees an old documentary photo instead of an imaginary scene. The malevolent and ambiguous overtones of the painting where one is uncertain of the meaning of the image, but nevertheless senses its highly critical stance, would not be possible without the meticulous rendering of texture in this art piece. Disturbing documentary effect of the painting becomes an element that brings historical plausibility into the image that reminds us of the past but also warns us about the future.
Gözde Ilkin is a Turkish artist of a younger generation that discovers complexities of Turkish contemporaneity in her stitched cloths. Her delicate style transforms fabrics that are used in almost every household into political statements, which she finishes with un-sewn strings or layers of acrylic paint. Ilkin intervenes into texture of the material she uses in order to add another layer of meaning into it. Textile has been used in high art since feminist artists in the 1960s and 70s reintroduced it. Before feminists pointed out to its significance, textile production was considered a feminine craft, and a lower form of expression not in line with the dominant art practices. Gözde Ilkin approaches textile aware of its historical importance, and uses it as the foundation on which she embroiders her stories. Themes she exploits include alienation, sexual and social identities, and power relationships. Female figures on her artworks often have amorphous shapes of heads or upper bodies as a critical remark on female identity crisis in a contemporary world ruled by oppressive notions of beauty and femininity.
Jovanka Stanojevic uses dry pastel, cardboard and other materials in her enlarged portraits. In her painting Friend from 2015, she represented a head of a person with large beard. The texture of the beard is emphasized through the application of twigs and heavy layers of color. The haptic effect is achieved thus in two ways, from the hyper-realistic depiction of the person’s head, but also from the application of materials that add third dimension to the painting. Stanojevic’s enlarged portraits celebrate uniqueness and difference of each human being, and search for the sublime in the everyday and in what is considered ordinary. The use of mixed media helps her achieve the realistic effect but also natural textures applied to the painting convey a sense of connectedness between humans and nature.
Would Gözde Ilkin’s artworks be so powerful in conveying a message if not for the textural combination of supple fabrics and a thread that pierces it? Or would Helnwein’s paintings have the same critical potency if not done in a style that achieves photographic illusion through realistic renderings of textures? Perhaps these questions suffice for the explanation of the importance of texture in the production of meaning as answers are already implied in them. Together with other elements, texture in art is both an aesthetic feature but also possesses a deeper significance, especially when materials come with the history imbedded in social orderings, like textile. Texture in art has a power to give a definition of the aesthetics of each artwork; it situates artworks in particular styles and historical periods but also affects their meaning and significance.
Editors’ Tip: Gottfried Helnwein
Austrian artist Gottfried Helnwein (born 1948) has enjoyed longstanding notoriety for his cross-media depictions of wounded children. Updating an artistic tradition of transgressed childhood innocence (Goya, Messerschmidt) with the visceral brutality of Viennese Actionism, Helnwein’s hyperrealistic paintings--as well as his photographs, multimedia works and performances--are truly confrontational, insofar as they permit the viewer no complacency and no escape. The most substantial Helnwein overview yet published, this volume marks the artist’s 65th birthday, and presents all stages of his artistic development, from landmark works of photorealism such as “Peinlich” (“Embarrassing”) from 1971 to 1982’s “Self-Portrait” (“Blackout”), which achieved fame worldwide as a Scorpions album cover, to more recent works such as the disturbing series Disasters of War, which focuses on severely injured children and teens.
Featured images: Delphine Brabant's sculpture. Image via galerie-caroline-tresca.fr; Denis Peterson - Halfway to the Stars. Image via denispeterson.com; Gözde Ilkin - Boys eat Turkish delight, 2008. Acrylic and stitch on the canvas. Image via gozdeilkin.blogspot.rs. All images used for illustrative purposes only.