Julie Unruh

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I'm struck by how the physical process of seeing as described by neuroscience is replicated by the process of painting. Although we perceive a three-dimensional world, our brains assemble that perception from information that was collected on a two-dimensional plane, a retina. Visually, the third dimension is a fabrication of the brain.

Initially, there is information overload. Your brain makes sense of it by looking for consistency in the data. It does this by breaking down the data into surprisingly specific categories. For example, part of the brain works on seeing yellow, part of the brain works on seeing lines at a 45 degree angle, part of the brain tries to identify motion, and so forth. But because your brain is looking for consistency, in the process of trying to identify edges and color, it will retain whatever seems to be consistent information, and discard whatever is inconsistent information. Your brain is not telling you about everything that is going on, and also it's making stuff up. There is input to your eyes that your brain ignores because it doesn't work with the ideas that it is assembling. And, if it wants to, your brain will embellish the input, to make it a better fit with whatever it's constructing. In other words, your brain is creative with its medium and invents things like edges and color.

Your brain takes all the pieces and tries to match them to anything you have ever seen. It constructs what you see by referencing your personal experience. Context, memory and personal history -- prior knowledge -- determines what you see. You can see new things, but all new things must have some sort of analogy in your visual vocabulary, or your brain will not interpret them, and you won't know that you are seeing them. You literally don't see what you don't have the experience to interpret visually.

Your brain is not just reporting back to you. Your brain is inventing the external world, but it is based on what your brain has already decided that you understand. In the end it presents your personal understanding back to you as a broader truth.

In the sense that everything you see is interpreted by your brain in light of other, previously seen, real objects in the real world, your brain is a realist – in fact, can't escape being a realist.

I'm interested in the difficulty of interpretation and the the invention of meaning. Some of my work deliberately presents visual overload. Some asks viewers to make sense of images that have too much information or too little information -- to connect the dots between dissociated images and, in so doing, to come up with a narrative that makes sense in the context of their personal experiences. I enjoy working with transparency and opacity, solidity and ethereality, and reflection and shadow. In my figurative work, I often try to document what I percieve as a disconnect between shared reality and individual interpretation. If each person's "reality" is constructed from his or her specific experiences, no two people can have the same reality. It seems that we interact, but we are essentially disconnected. (Interestingly, emergence behavior studies and research into entanglement in physics are now challenging that position.)

In one very literal respect, seeing is not like painting, seeing is sculpting. Your visual history is physically represented in your brain. When you learn, you actually physically change the configuration of the neurons in your brain. Seeing is a form of learning. So when you see, you are physically rearranging your brain matter; you are literally sculpting your brain.

February 2013