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July 27, 2011

Deep Interlock and Ambiguity

“Juan,” watercolor by Charles Reid

“In a surprisingly large number of cases, living structures contain some form of interlock: situations where centers are “hooked” into their surroundings. This has the effect of making it difficult to disentangle the center from its surroundings. It becomes more deeply unified with the world and with other centers near it.”

Christopher Alexander, p. 195, Book One, The Nature of Order

“Ambiguity…comes about when a subsystem belongs simultaneously to two different overlapping larger systems.”

Christopher Alexander, p. 270, Book One, The Nature of Order

Charles Reid is one of my favorite contemporary watercolor painters. I am drawn to his ability to give life to a sheet of paper utilizing seemingly cavalier strokes of his pen and brush. But as an amateur watercolorist myself, I find Reid’s writing about painting to be equally as instructive. Reid clearly articulates the foundational properties that support his work.

“Technically, everything we draw and paint should have lost-and-found edges. The idea is that you can stress or emphasize some boundaries with a found or hard boundary while minimizing other areas with a lost or soft boundary. Soft or lost edges help you to connect and mass together adjacent objects and shapes, avoiding the cut-out-and-pasted-down look of a painting done entirely with hard, found edges.”

Charles Reid, p. 42, Pulling Your Paintings Together

A few years ago, I realized that Reid and Alexander were speaking the same language. Where Alexander said ‘make space whole’, Reid was saying ‘pull the painting together’. Alexander says that anything alive exhibits the property of Deep Interlock and Ambiguity, where distinct centers are brought into coherence by an ambiguous shared boundary zone, or where small bits of one center find themselves embedded in an adjoining center. Reid speaks of the lost edge, where an area of color can become connected to the paper and/or other areas of color through an ambiguous, soft or lost boundary. In a manner of speaking, both are commenting on the nature of life-quality, that it has difficulty manifesting itself when each component is too distinct, too separate.

Whenever these properties of wholeness tend to show up through a wide cross section of the making arts, I am confirmed that there is a bit of truth there.

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