Shedding light on structure

From looking at Charles Sheeler's drawing ''Feline Felicity'' you might well guess that he was an accomplished photographer as well as a painter. The framing of the image, the specificity of light and shadow, and the living subject whose position might change at any moment all suggest the artist may have based his drawing as much on a photograph as on direct observation. In addition, the drawing is done entirely in gray tones, like those of a black and white photo.

Sheeler frequently used his own photographs as the basis for paintings, one reason being that he favored images of industrial buildings and machinery, views that might not be available to him long enough to be painted firsthand. The painter's pace is too far out of step with the industrial world of work, whereas the camera, a little machine itself, can collect images as quickly as the photographer can choose them. In using the camera as he did, Sheeler set the precedent for the approach to painting and drawing that has come to be called ''Photo-Realism.'' The term refers to the fact that some painters now take photographic visual information itself - the camera's way of seeing - as a subject for realistic representation. Sheeler never took the interplay of painting and photography to that extreme, because he believed that a good painting must be a formally original construction. He took compositional ideas from photographs, and used them as an aid to memory. But he believed that the abstract strength of design he sought in painting could result only from conscious fabrication by the artist. One reason he was attracted to architectural and machine forms as subject matter is that they tend to have geometric structures in themselves. Representing such subjects realistically enabled Sheeler to make pictures that are recognizably true to the experience of his time, yet have some of the formal rigor he valued in European Modernist art.

Even in an image as descriptive and intimate as ''Feline Felicity,'' you can see Sheeler's interest in giving picture space a firm visual structure. The Shaker chair and its shadow form such a powerful linear pattern they make the sleeping cat almost unnoticeable at first. There is a real affinity between the legs and struts of the chair and the pipes and silos that appear in many of the artist's paintings. The cat is the focus of the drawing's realism in a double sense. Its markings form an abstract pattern of lights and darks that is itself like the play of light and shadow the whole picture describes. And while everything else in the drawing looks deprived of color, the cat's white and gray fur looks as if it might just be true to the creature's real colors.

There is another possible meaning of light and shadow here. The light falling upon the cat corresponds to our attention as it falls upon the drawing. The shadows then might be linked with the sleeping cat's (and the drawing's) unconsciousness of the artist's and our gaze. Seen this way, the drawing can be taken to suggest that vision is never just a matter of consciousness, as the visibility of things is never just a matter of light, but of light and shade: instead it is the pattern consciousness and unconsciousness form together.

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