“I want to keep shadows as shadows and hence let the feeling of my painting be shadowy. Though shadow is the absence of light, the negative to light’s positive, it can exert as much power as light does. Why try to paint only what is positive? The holiday-maker craves only the sun and curses the presence of cloud. I can love the deep shadow cast by the sun, but I may love even more the almost invisible shadow cast by a cloud” – Joseph Plaskett, “Mirrors and Shadows”, Chapter 16, A Speaking Likeness, page 186.
Joseph Plaskett’s meditation on the power of shadows guides our Curator’s Selection for March – May, 2023. The joy of shadows for the artist can be twofold: physical and metaphorical. Shadows operate as a physical element that possesses a negative light value caused by the blocking of light source by an opaque object. This is apparent in the casts of darkened beige in the tableau of “Begonia, Dahlia, Red Rose, Apples”, and the deep black background of “Cabbage and Pots”. In these works, shadow is depicted as areas of darkened colour.
Plaskett also uses shadows metaphorically, in keeping with the word “shadowy” and its connotations of uncertainty and faint perceptibility. Shadowiness is imbued in works by the artist depicting mysterious interior spaces with unknown light sources, as in “Untitled (Bust of the Marquis de Condorcet)”. The shadowy quality initiates our sense of voyeurism, as we desire to comprehend the space, see the sculpture in the round, and even read what is written in the open book.
Plaskett’s use of shadow is paralleled by Bau-Xi photographic artists George Byrne, Virginia Mak and Whitney Lewis Smith. Byrne and Mak similarly make effective use of physical shadows; in their work, shadows can be seen as colours of varying light values which create graphic shapes. This lends their compositions the effect of an abstract painting, making them more than simply exterior or interior scenes.
The shadows in the photographs of Whitney Lewis Smith follow Plaskett's metaphorical use of the effect, encouraging the viewer to look beyond the constructed image. In her darkened, shadowy tableaus, the chiaroscuro caused by light falling against the folds and undulations of botanical subjects invites one to question the light source, dimension and overall meaning behind the moodiness of the vignettes before them.