Succulus by Robert Pepperell
Succulus by Robert Pepperell

Robert Pepperell, the Head of Fine Art at Cardiff School of Art & Design, is interested in the phenomenon he calls visual indeterminacy: you see the scene before you clearly, but you don’t know what it is. His article Seeing without Objects: Visual Indeterminacy and Art has helped me put together another piece of the puzzle of what is compelling to me about abstraction and what I mean by abstraction in my own work. Pepperell comes at the question through art history, psychology/neuroscience, and his own drawings and paintings. For example, his painting Succulus is very evocative for me of the figures, draped clothing, and sky on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, yet I can’t actually recognize any of that in the picture. As described on his web page:

Pepperell’s paintings and drawings are the result of intensive experimentation in materials and methods designed to evoke a very specific, though elusive, state of mind. The works induce a disrupted perceptual condition in which what we see cannot be matched with what we know. Instead of a recognisable depiction the viewer is presented with … a complex multiplicity of possible images, none of which ever finally resolves.

Monochrome 1 by Robert Pepperell
Monochrome 1 by Robert Pepperell

Most people cannot turn off their ability to segment their visual field, distinguishing objects based on experience. Undifferentiated visual sensation generally exists in the conscious mind only for occasional brief moments, or as a consequence of brain injury or the repairing of congenital blindness (normally by removing cataracts). But Pepperell discusses drug-induced and aesthetic states of altered consciousness, much as June did here recently.

Aldous Huxley, in The Doors of Perception, describes the appearance of the world as modified by mescaline: “Visual perceptions are greatly intensified and the eye recovers some of the perceptual innocence of childhood, when the sensum was not immediately and automatically subordinated to the concept.”

Pepperell invokes the 19th century aesthetic development of Impressionism, which he links with the artist Turner and the critic John Ruskin, who

argued that the power of the artist lay in suppressing cognitive preconceptions in order to recover

what might be called the innocence of the eye; that is to say, of a sort of childish perception of these flat stains of colour, merely as such, without consciousness of what they signifiy–as a blind man would see them if suddenly gifted with sight.


Not only do I find these ideas fascinating in themselves, but they have helped me clarify for myself some of my hazy ideas about the nature of abstraction in my photography, which is something I’m groping toward both stylistically and intellectually (pace arguments on artistic intuition vs. verbal rationality). There are a number of parts to that, but one is that I enjoy and would like to create pictures that are not purely abstract, but appeal as abstract designs even before you identify clearly what they are. Pepperell’s ideas on visual indeterminacy show how a picture could be both abstract and realistic. His pictures, however, unlike the ones I feel myself aiming for, never do resolve into recognition, but hover tantalizingly on that edge.

Have you ever experienced a strong sense of visual indeterminacy? Did it have artistic significance for you? Do you find it disturbing when captured in a painted picture?