Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Seeing spots

One of the intermediate size cats that I am working on right now is covered in spots. I spent part of yesterday carefully cutting perfect circles out of my hand dyed fabric to apply to the surface. (I'm not sure now why I cared that the circles be perfect but that's what I did. I might change my mind later.)

I have some vague reasons for making spots but I thought it would be interesting to investigate how others have utilized them. As a zoologist, I am most familiar with spots on animals. They are used for camouflage. A good example is described in a story from one of my favourite books of all time, Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling. (Note that there is offensive language near the end of the original story to which I have linked.) In this instance the leopard acquires spots so that he can become a better predator. Hmmm. In other cases animals use spots to blend in to their environment for safety, as the giraffe and zebra use blotches and stripes in the story. Could that be the meaning of my spots?

Other animals use colour and pattern, including spots, as a warning mechanism. They are either advertising their toxicity or are mimicking another noxious animal. A good example is the common ladybug. It is bad-tasting and signals that fact with its red colour and black spots. Other organisms have capitalized on the association between pattern/colour and taste and have evolved the same pattern even though they are not similarly noxious.

Spider mimic of ladybug
Filled circular spots, regularly applied, are known to most of us as polka dots. This is a terrific summary of the role of polka dots in fashion. It is interesting to read that polka dots are still considered somewhat frivolous or playful - don't wear them to a job interview!

In art, as the article mentions, dots are mostly associated with the pointillist painters. When that style of applying paint to canvas was introduced by Seurat it was greeted with ridicule. The apparent simplicity compared to the complex action of mixing specific paint colours suggested that this was a "lesser" means of painting. The practitioners of pointillism were also criticized for their lack of spontaneity, whatever that means.

detail from Circus Sideshow, Georges Seurat

In recent times, Damien Hirst's spot paintings have sparked questions about whether simple circles of color in a specific arrangement are  truly 'art'. This has been compounded by the fact that he has only completed five of the hundreds of spot paintings his studio has produced. He uses assistants to create the rest, arguing that "Art goes on in your head."

detail from Dam 007, Damien Hirst

At this point, it seems to me that my use of spots is consistent with all of the above. I certainly have the camouflage and warning aspects in my thoughts. But I am also aware that spots carry a connotation of too much simplicity and paucity of meaning. I am particularly sensitive to the concept that my use of carefully cut and applied dots seems "non-spontaneous". Only time will tell whether I can find a balance between my intent and the viewers' interpretation.

For some reason when I think of spots this creature pops into my mind's eye. This is Ambystoma maculatum, the yellow spotted salamander which is common in hardwood forests in eastern Canada and the United States.


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