The Photographic Journal

Perception and Its Visual Trickery

 Burnt Out 1 - Limited Edition 1/5 Sailors Bay Middle Harbour, Sydney. 19th Jan 2018. 6.44am

Burnt Out 1 - Limited Edition 1/5 Sailors Bay Middle Harbour, Sydney. 19th Jan 2018. 6.44am

The genesis for my work grew out of my observations of nature and the discovery nature has a unique ability to create perfectly constructed abstract artworks.

I make this assumption about nature and art because - as behaviourial psychologist Nick Chuter observes in his new book, the Mind is Flat - the brain essentially just makes everything up as it goes along – including what we fondly think of as our real perceptions of the world, which are nothing more than a patchwork of reconstructions and guesses. As an artist, this theory explains how I see the work I am creating – guesswork abstracts!!

This idea of the brain playing games of neural guesswork regularly surfaces during conversations about my work. At first glance, the work seems to spark the imagination or touch an emotion in the viewer that asks the brain for a meaningful response.  Whilst the response provides momentary meaning, in reality, often there is no connection between the meaning and the reality of the content of the image.

Two stories from viewers whose perception of Burnt Out 1 were completely different demonstrate this idea

Recently former US President Barack Obama was staying at the Sydney Intercontinental Hotel, the venue for my current pop up gallery. A young Pakistani security agent was placed outside my gallery overnight. When I arrived to open the Gallery in the morning, he walked over, introduced himself and asked if he could share something with me. Burnt Out 1 had occupied him during his 12-hour shift and he wanted to explain to me what he had discovered about the work.

“It was” he said excitedly “beautiful and engaging. I have focused on it all night. I finally have discovered what it is. It is a painting from inside a cave and the light in the centre is the sun streaming in beckoning the person inside the cave into the light.” He wanted me to know this piece of art had affected him profoundly in such a positive way and asked whether I would pose for a photo standing in front of the artwork for him to send to his family in Lahore.

Even though I knew what the image was in reality, whilst having my own view on what it might or could represent to a viewer, at no time had I even sensed in the image a cave. My new Pakistani friend had offered an entirely new perception of what the image represented. That I might have created a visual image that evoked Plato’s “the Cave” - my favourite Ancient Greek allegory - was powerful. Why hadn't my brain revealed that possibility?

Two weeks later, an energetic loquacious gentleman, 70 years young and a World War 2 displaced person of Latvian descent, rushed into the Gallery insisting he had to buy Burnt Out 1 - now. He had walked past the Gallery several times over the last two days and Burnt Out 1 had made a very important connection for him.  He and his family had been in the heart of the path of the Ash Wednesday bushfire in South Australia in 1983, still one of Australia’s most devastating bushfires with the loss of 75 lives and over 3000 buildings destroyed. Burnt Out 1 offered his neural pathway a sense of recall and yet peaceful meditation on a most horrific moment in his life.

So what is the photo of in reality that has provoked these wonderful stories?

I am conflicted about answering that question. Should I describe in detail how the imagine was constructed and take away its inherent abstraction, its mysticism. Or should I describe it in detail and let viewers examine their own reactions to the description.

For the moment, I am holding back. Let your brain do the guesswork. Whatever it comes up with will be correct!!


How I work with abstraction

Many and varied art theories abound on the evolution of abstraction in art. I am of the opinion abstraction is not an unplanned improvised act of visualization.

I believe it evolves as a result of an artist's subconscious observations in reality. The artist’s brain has seen the shape or form for a moment, captured it on visual synapses and the resulting work is the artist's representation of what their brain has perceived it saw. 

My work is inspired by the belief these abstractions abound in the environment naturally every single moment of the day.  You just need to be aware of the phenomenon, be alert to and curious about how they manifest themselves and the affect, visually and emotionally, they have on you.

The feedback about the abstraction in my art has been profound and very helpful in enabling me to understand how I work with it. Viewers will offer come up to me and use very flattering references such as this work reminds them of Dali, Kandinsky, Klimt, Olsen, Williams, Rothko, Whiteley and so on.

I am always delighted when these masters are referenced as I too see modern art influences in the pictures. Indeed, it was through the influence of the modern art masters that these abstractions in nature revealed themselves to me.

Or maybe, it is the masters who saw these colours, forms and shapes in nature to commence and it is I, borrowing from their legacy, who is re-interpreting their works and influence using a 21st Century mode- the digital camera. 

The abstraction in these pictures has not been created using Photshop or digital enhancing software. Each image existed in reality at a moment in time in the beautiful environs of Sydney's Middle Harbour . There is no right or wrong way to view the work. Each piece is designed for viewers to form their own meaning in the abstraction through the shape, colour and form of the picture. 

My hope is the work encourages pleasurable aesthetic meditation and connection.

Feedback from Helen Zhang, China.
 ...“ I have been admiring your artworks on the beautiful website of yours.  Such a feast to the senses, but also they make me pause in awe and go inwards.  I love "Clearing the inner blueness"...every time it draws me in, gives me a different, tranquil and unique experience that's hard to put into words.  Thank you for enriching our lives with such incredible artwork...”

Here is a short film My Art Studio  that demonstrates my art practice in abstraction.

The Art of Naming

 Red Heart Blue Calm

Red Heart Blue Calm

Neuroscience tell us it is the brain, not the eye, that sees. The eye is simply a muscle that acts as the conduit for vision. It is the physiological mechanism of the brain’s synapses connecting that jump starts our perception with its store of memories and ideas enabling us to make meaning out of what we see.

I am constantly reminded of this when I am creating Paintings on Water pictures such as Red Heart Blue Calm and Yellow Dance Notation

I first see my pictures after my morning kayak when I download them to the computer. On first glance,  I am waiting for my brain to speak to me about what the abstractions in the reflections on the water represent. What is my brain telling me I am seeing?

Wassily Kandinsky, the Russian artist considered the father of modern abstract painting, spent years tirelessly analysing and observing his own paintings and those of other artists using this thought process, noting its effects, specifically on his sense of colour in order to understand and make sense of the abstraction in his work. Indeed, Kandinsky would take up to six months just to add one brushstroke to a landscape he was painting. He was observing in his own mind what his eye was capturing and only when he felt the brain had it right would he add a brush stroke of colour.

Kandinsky believed it wasn’t the subject content of the picture that was important in a painting. In his view, artistic expression wasn’t about scientific, objective observations rather it was how colour, form and shapes came together to offer an artist’s inner, subjective expression of their vision of the world.

 Yellow Dance Notation

Yellow Dance Notation


My experience is this creative process is not always easy. Some shots immediately speak to me – others take days even months to reveal themselves. Yet it is in that moment of revelation of naming when I experience a completion in the work and an understanding momentarily of how to represent it – how to describe it!!

More interesting from my perspective though is talking to viewers as they describe what they are seeing. It never ceases to amaze me as to what they describe they are seeing.

This is what makes my work as an artist endlessly enthralling, enjoyable and compelling – the positive human interaction about how we perceive the world so differently yet how we can find joy and connection in the differences an image conveys.

Ralph Kerle on Arts About with Sally Baillieu and John Laird

 Life on the Lowlands

Life on the Lowlands

Arts About is a weekly arts programme presented by Melbourne cultural cogniscenti Sally Baillieu and John Baird on RPP FM covering all things art and culture in Melbourne, Australia.

In this broadcast, I had the opportunity to talk about how I make my work and the original influences that took me on the journey.