Making One of Opposites by Michael O’Keefe

Perhaps the essential question for all visual artists is how to animate the art object. How does one make an inanimate object reflect something of life in the eyes of the viewer? There is a very long and culturally limitless history of art works that find a dynamic pulse by creating a unified whole out of opposing elements. These art objects are born out of an equally long history of cultures that find a richness and dynamism through the tensions of opposing elements.

One of the oldest and best-known life symbols in the world is the Yin/Yang symbol. This symbol presents a whole that holds within it two complementary opposites and illustrates the most profound theories that underpin Taoist philosophy.

This notion of opposing entities in a duality is found in many cultural perspectives and is a necessary and overwhelming part of human life experience. It is the experiences of life and an understanding of the natural world that informs the philosopher and the maker of art objects. And so the long lineage of art objects mentioned above are all informed by the natural world, the world of the body and the complex phenomena that exist inside that body and around that body. More specifically, many artists have relied on an awareness of how polar or seemingly contrary forces are interconnected and interdependent in the natural world.

Take for instance the Dogon sculpture housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The artist carves his wooden figure with its unusually long arms raised straight towards the sky. The head of figure sits on an elongated neck, giving the head a sense of buoyancy. The knees of the figure are bent, yielding to the earth. The legs of the figure are fully tied into the form representative of the pelvis and this form also surrenders its weight downward. It is the opposing nature of all these forms, held within a static whole that generates a strange, beautiful and lively presence in this sculpture.

It would appear that the sculptor of this Dogon sculpture was aware of the same physical and energetic principles found within the practice of Yoga. The yoga pose Utkatasana looks much like the sculpture I have described, a standing pose with feet close together, knees bent and arms raised. The strength, heat, and energy created by this Yoga pose are the result of the opposing actions that the practitioner actively engages in. In this pose the Yogi holds their body as if they are in the process of sitting down in a chair while holding their hands in the air. The weight of the body presses into the feet as they grip the earth, the intensity of gravity is enhanced. Simultaneously there is a deliberate effort to deny the force of gravity as the arms, hands, head, neck, ribs and chest all reach toward the sky. The body becomes an active conduit between the heavens and the earth much like how, within the pose, the spine becomes an active conduit between the yielding lower body and the reaching upper body.

The beauty and profundity of Yoga is in the balance of opposites. And in the world of art the balance of opposing elements is a key compositional concern in many of the most beautiful and profound art objects. In addition to the Dogon sculpture that simultaneously reaches up and reaches down one might find a compelling example of this in an Indian sculpture that simultaneously presents the front and back of a female figure while maintaining the sense of a complete figure.

The Jewish Bride by REMBRANDT Harmenszoon van Rijn 1667

Or one might consider the Rembrandt painting of the “Jewish Bride” that subtly presents what should be the bride’s right arm as an alternate or additional right arm of the bridegroom, allowing him to rest a hand on her shoulder, breast and belly, simultaneously. There are countless examples of paintings that simultaneously imply space and affirm the flatness of the painted surface, countless examples of sculptures that integrate forms that spiral in opposing directions, and countless drawings that render an image while demanding that the viewer see the lines of the drawing as independent entities. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and life is full of opposing entities in perfect balance.


“Tarantist” Graphite on Paper 40″x55″ 2009, Michael O’Keefe

“Icarus” Graphite on Paper 40″x55″ 2009, Michael O’Keefe

“As the Arrow Survives the String” 40″x55″ graphite on paper 2009, Michael O’Keefe

Author ~ Michael O’Keefe

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Michael O’Keefe's art work is necessarily figurative, not because it depends on the object it portrays, but rather because the figure, as an entity in its own right, is the pivot around which his world moves. O’Keefe received a BA from Muhlenberg College and received an MFA from Southern Methodist University. He also studied at the New York Studio School, the Maryland Institute, College of Art and the International School of Art in Umbria, Italy. O'Keefe currently lives, works and teaches in Dallas, TX.

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