by Robert Genn
April 19, 2005
Not everyone knows what I'm talking about when I drag the word
"homeomorphic" out in mixed company. Specifically to do with
equality of shapes in differing chemicals, it's not in the art
books. But it's a valuable creative concept. Without always
knowing its name, homeomorphism is generally pointed out as a
type of compositional problem. Typically in amateur work it's a
lineup of equidistant trees, or a mountain that rises up
conveniently in order to avoid colliding with a foreground
element. It's a natural tendency of the human mind to
automatically organize things neatly and in a regular manner.
You can probably see an example of architectural homeomorphism
from where you sit--window panes are generally divided from one
another by equidistant mullions. So you can get an idea what
I'm talking about, I've asked Andrew to put up some painterly
examples in the current clickback. See URL below.
Many artists instinctively fight it. Too much homeomorphism,
unimaginatively used, gives a "ruler-regularity" that tends to
make work boring. Nature's not like that. Nature tends to be
uneven, random, even chaotic. This means big against small,
recession against protrusion, foreground against background,
dark against light, warm against cool.
There's a parallel in music. Music often depends on a regular
and reliable rhythmic beat. But in a lot of jazz, reggae and
stride piano for example, the beat is given on the off-note.
Rather than conformation, there's counterpoint. While providing
a safe haven, homeomorphism tends to snuff natural dynamism and
neutralize creative surprise.
But homeomorphism is also a valuable design device. It can add
interest, mystery, magic and strength. Lineups, repetition,
transfers, rhythm and spottification are some of the tools of
abstraction. Free from nature's reality, the creative eye can
decide to "hold" a shape with another, or "confuse" by allowing
a shape (or a line) to be drawn to another. Homeomorphism is
one way to beguile the eye. The next time you're dragging a
brush and wondering where your stroke might end, remember that
you have choices. Your stroke can go to something, veer away
from something, fall short, overtake, or bump nicely into the
middle of something. It's an esoteric little business but it's
good to be aware that it exists.
PS: "I pay close attention to the variety of shapes and sizes,
and place the objects so that the lines and edges create a
rhythm that guides the viewer's eye around the image and into
the focal point." (Sergei Forostovskii)
Esoterica: Homeomorphism comes from two Greek words
homeos--identical, and morphe--shape. I fret about it every day
and I'm willing to discuss it openly. Frankly, it drives me
nuts. Some days I'm particularly homeomorphic and I just let go
and it works to some advantage. One day my late fried Toni
Onley remarked how he wallowed in it--and in the current
clickback it's his work that I'm using to demonstrate it. I'd
be very much interested in what you think of it.
Current clickback: If you would like to see selected,
illustrated responses to the last letter, "On the road," as well
as examples of creative homeomorphism, please go to: