Understanding dualism and why it matters


Posted: January 2nd, 2022

Alongside commissioned writing on diverse topics and artists, my research stems from questions formed a decade ago during a two-year HND in art practice. Writing a statement for the end-of-year exhibition, I realised that all my output involved interconnecting shapes and lines, across drawing, painting, print and ceramics. I had manifested an intuitive interest in relational structures and dynamics that has sustained my enquiry since.

At the same time, I was struck by consistencies in the tutors’ guidance on the nature of contemporary art, which, according to my terms of reference at the time, tended exclusively towards disorder. Painterliness, formlessness, expressiveness, experimentation, non-traditional mediums and abstraction seemed most relevant, in contrast to skill, figuration, contour and finish.

Much good came from this instruction, not least in bringing me up to date and introducing a whole new repertoire of visual language. But I felt a need to square it with the other kinds of art that have existed across time and space, and with the prevailing societal emphasis on visual perfection, efficiency and the quantifiable (you can't measure what you can't distinguish). Why should art be this way now? What about representation and order? How could the cultural contradictions be understood? 

These questions coalesced into a topic for MPhil research, with order and disorder the focus for a dissertation on the work of artist Mark Francis. Consulting a range of disciplines, including physics, philosophy and psychology, I reframed disorder as not-order, complex order, entropy and noise, and differentiated the chaotic from the random. This helped me to contextualise and interpret aspects of style, technique and subject matter in Francis' oeuvre.

Also in the mix were intimations of patterning across art history, whereby (arguably recurring) stylistic tendencies discernible as ‘classical’ or ‘baroque’ align, respectively, with dualistic qualities such as linear or painterly, closed or open, static or dynamic. In ways that are nuanced and need to be teased out, one half of each opposition is more relatable to order, the other disorder (especially when more than one example is present). Unlike the division suggested by dichotomy, there is much in between and, in recognition of this, I now use a hyphen to express these pairings (e.g. closed-open, disorder-order).


During my doctoral project on the art of Richard Tuttle, the research expanded to probe dualism itself as a phenomenon that permeates what we do, say, think and make. While still fundamentally oriented around and motivated by art, this has broader relevance, including, topically, in gender studies and politics, given the polarisation and complexities evident in these spheres. 


I became familiar with principles underpinning language and cognition, the non-dual unity of certain Eastern belief systems, dialectics, and the structures of woven textiles. This has nudged me towards conceiving of unity as profoundly intrinsic, and as the source of duality and multiplicity. With opposites recast as mutually interlinked (each, for instance, defines the other) it is possible to envisage equilibrium in place of imbalance.


I find this notion compelling, yet provisional, and efforts to refine my understanding of art and its contexts are ongoing. This blog will help with the process, updates made clear through links to subsequent posts. It seems important, at the start of 2022, to continue pursuing insights into the nature of dualism, and its manifestations in art, since rigidly binary viewpoints can privilege one side of a pairing, feeding into intolerance of the other, and into hierarchical power structures.