Visual Language Artist

Artist Statement

 Photo courtesy of Liz Harvey.  Click the photo to view her site. 

Photo courtesy of Liz Harvey. Click the photo to view her site. 


“Light was not either a wave or a particle but was both a wave and a particle.         Knowledge of both these very different aspects was necessary for a complete             description of light; either one without the other was inadequate.”

    - Niels Bohr


Through my work, I create spatial environments by exploring relationships, distance/proximity and “nonlinear observation.” Moreover, my work invites the viewer to navigate and observe their surroundings to bridge the formal relationships within space. This ongoing body of work visually and socially explores the subtle nuances of these “spaces". I draw inspiration from sources such as anthropology, linguistics, education and cognitivescience.

More specifically, my newest series of work incorporates hand-made "empty frames," which are painted and hung on their sides, projecting outward into space. I call these “frames” - paired with a duplicated flat geometric wall painting - “Spatial Binaries.” They live on the gallery walls, corners, ceilings and the floors. These sculptural installations call attention to the “empty” spaces, cultural spaces, body and awareness spaces by utilizing elements of distance and proximity.


Over time, instructions became an integral part of the work. When instructions are present a set of linear linguistic command(s) are suggested - whether it be IKEAs wordless instruction booklets or overly detailed (and confusing) instructions on how to play dominoes. In both examples, interpretation becomes the main focal point. (see Figure 1 & 2) 

 Figure 1

Figure 1

 Figure 2

Figure 2

Since childhood, our understanding of objects derive from investigating the objects formal properties; how it's made, where is the objects cultural and social destination, is it functional, and how does the size or color (re)contextualize the object? 

Moreover, how does the object interact with its spatial surroundings?


“Homonymy is defined as the use of the same word for different                           concepts, as in race ‘tribe,’ and race ‘running a contest.’” 

My Spatial Binaries use this idea of homonymy by utilizing the same shape and color but in different dimensions (2D vs. 3D). These visual cues tie the painting and the sculpture together while simultaneously separating them by their product - shadow(s). Furthermore, a single Spatial Binary is simultaneously located in multiple galleries across the United States. This Idea of “site inclusiveness” will be discussed at length in a section titled Time & Space.

“Framing” & Boundaries

At the beginning of this statement, I quoted “frames.” There is a reason for this. George Lakoff defines framing as “every word - in any language as being relative to the structure of a frame.” But what is a “frame?” 

Frames have two parts:

1. FRAME ELEMENTS (Example: hospitals, doctors, patients, operating rooms, etc.) 

2. SCENARIOS (Example: what happens within those frames)


    You walk into the hospital, and the receptionist hands you a scalpel and says you'll be operating on the doctor. This scenario seems like utter nonsense - because a frame creates an expectation (Figure 3) and by jumbling these expectations can break our understanding of a particular frame.

    Now, why are “frames” relevant to Spatial Binaries? Spatial Binaries break “frames.” They jut out from the wall - into space, and their base shapes are illusionistic. Furthermore, Charles Fillmore suggests that “every language is defined relative to a frame.” For example, if you imagine something, the same part of the brain is active as if you were standing in front of it. This cognitive dissonance is key to understanding other examples later in this statement.


As many of us know - relationships are based on the way in which two or more concepts, objects or people connect. And as humans, particularly English speakers, closely tie our relationships to the “JOURNEY METAPHOR.”


1. Lovers are the travelers

2. The vehicle is the relationship

English, for example, has the LOVE IS A JOURNEY metaphor but does not have JOURNEY’S ARE LOVE metaphor. If we reversed this metaphor to (JOURNEYS ARE LOVE), we would call attention to the word “journeys” as being mutually separate from the word “love” in which neither words possess a neutral linkage between them. This concept is metaphorically reflected in the initial quote by Niels Bohr at the beginning of this statement.

 Figure 3

Figure 3

    Yes, that was a lot to take in. But how does JOURNEY AND RELATIONSHIP tie into Spatial Binaries? JOURNEY AND RELATIONSHIP is the idea that I can have one part of a Spatial Binary (the sculpture OR the painting) at the opposite end of a room; isolated by different rooms or even in different geographical locations and the audience would still be able to make the connection that they are viewing a single work that is divorced by space. What keeps the tangible connection between the painting and sculpture active over vast distances is the visual language (or communication) of the work.

How are Relationships Based on Communication?

Linguist, Michael Reddy created the "conduit metaphor,” which observes that our language about language (metalanguage) is structured roughly by the following complex metaphor:


The conduit metaphor is considered a figurative expression. This type of metaphor happens when speakers or writers “embed” their feelings and thoughts into words, phrases or sentences - by extension, content is then “extracted” from the phrase by the readers or listeners. 

 Figure 4

Figure 4

In Figure 4 we can see that linguistic expression OR the container is missing. Artwork is typically physical (an object, person, canvas, etc.) and is always sending (or communicating) meaning. However, the main struggle with contemporary art its that linguistic expression is rarely clear or in some cases rarely present at all. 

Reddy documents this phenomenon with more than a hundred types of expressions in English, which he estimates to account for at least 70 percent of the expressions we use for talking about language. Here are three examples:

  1. Don’t force your meanings into the wrong words. 
  2. His words carry little meaning. 
  3. The sentence is without meaning.

    Relationships are a key component to a successful artwork. Without them, viewers cannot and will not even approach the work - not to mention “sit” with the work for longer than 30 seconds. And just like human relationships, artwork needs a steady stream of communication for it to function at a high level. However, communication is not alway clear because we have metaphors that obscure what we “really” mean. And it's no surprise that the same concept can apply to artwork(s). Which leads me to question the linguistic expression or “Container” of artwork(s). With my Spatial Binary series, I am testing, developing, stretching and quite literally measuring a theoretical maximum distance and proximity of these “Containers” that exists in-between the idea or meaning AND the Artwork.

Time and “Space”

    Which leads me to my sixth and final point; humans have two understandings of the TIME PASSES US metaphor: in one case, we are moving and time is standing still; in the other, time is moving, and we are standing still. What both of these concepts have in common is relative motion and space with respect to ourselves. Why is this important?

    These two ways of thinking about and experiencing “time” are not mutually exclusive. However, they are closely related to egocentric languages like English. The common thread of the TIME PASSES US metaphor is US. Just about everything we say is based on the location of yourself and where you are in proximity to everything else. With this linguistic mindset firmly in the driver seat we, near automatically, assume experiences, objects, and events are singular (that they first, directly pertain to us, then others) - unless specifically told otherwise. Adhered to language is the concept of “space,” defined as: 

“(v) the positioning (two of more items or thoughts) at a distance from one another.” 

But what happens when repeating objects occupy multiple spaces, across vast distances? How does “space” challenge the meaning of an object if the viewer believes the object to be “one of a kind” or unrelated to its surroundings?   

Figure 5 shows the locations of five different exhibitions (March 2017) of mine across the country. These five exhibitions each simultaneously had at least one of the same Spatial Binaries on display during the month of March 2017. Simultaneous space is something all humans deal with on a daily basis. We interact with various people throughout our day - to that extent we're all born on different hours, days, months and years. 

 Figure 5

Figure 5

Each person has traveled through space and time to various degrees and still, we coexist within the same “general space.” For example, a STOP SIGN occupies “general space.” It looks the same no matter where we are in the United States while existing in many areas across the country. The problem with STOP SIGNS is that they are not uniquely distinguishable from one another. They are not numbered, signed, or marked by a craftsman in any way because they are machine made. In the end, what does it mean to discover something unique and wonder if there is another thing in the world that is 98% identical to it? What is it like to have many unique but “like” objects paralleling one another over great distances?


    My tentative conclusion is this: We live within space. No surprise there. However, English speakers describe the space we live within, quite differently than our friends to the West (dialects derived from Asia), South (dialects of Spanish) and even Native North American dialects. What do I mean by this?

    An early hypothesis from Yale University guest lecturer, Benjamin Lee Whorf in 1940 suggested that language routinely obliges you to specify particular types of information, it forces you to be attentive to certain aspects of experience that speakers of other languages may not be required to think about all the time. Although Whorf’s full conclusion was proven to be false, his base theory lead to revelations about how language and the cognitive processes play a role in our perception and understanding of “space.” 

     English speakers assume the role of “center,” meaning that most of the time we speak as if we are the sun and everything else is in proximity to us - objects, people, concepts circle us - similarly to the planets in our solar system. Therefore, English is inherently egocentric. Therefore, when a monolingual English speaker views artwork, they think of the work as existing within a "singular space," only at the moment said viewer had gifted his/her gaze upon the artwork. There is not an expectation that the artwork (being looked upon) has a partner at the other end of the room or in a different gallery, etc. Artwork(s) that break away from a “singularity gaze” would overturn the experience that the viewer had with the first work of art and force them to reconsider the time, space, distance, proximity, and judgment they cast onto the work - at first glance. 

Unabridged Artist Statement - 1,793 words: By Nicholas Hullibarger, 2017