Seven Types Of Visual Ambiguity


"There are three possible scales or dimensions...along which ambiguities may be spread out: the degree of logical or grammatical disorder, the degree to which the apprehension of the ambiguity must be conscious, and the degree of psychological complexity concerned."                

                                                                                   William Empson


In the second book of Della Pittura (1436) Alberti describes his "drawing machine", an instrument with which an artist could trace perceived "reality" as it appears framed on (or beyond) the surface of a window pane. Employed effectively, Alberti's device yields an optically convincing replica of whatever scene is being viewed through such a "window". Implied distances between and among objects depicted achieve a transparent clarity of relations which appear to be isomorphic with the viewer's cone of vision. By successfully conveying one-point perspective, planar space within the framed flatness of the picture's surface, reveals the disparity and structural contradictions associated with prior attempts at precise replication. A central, practical and revolutionary feature of Albertian perspective's "scientific" achievement was the subsequent elimination of inadvertent or unintentional pictorial ambiguity. And hence the consequent availability of employing a novel range of intentional or deliberate ambiguities in picture making.


(Examples of it are quite rare, but there is one case where the above does not pertain. Albertian perspective is thoroughly dependent upon the intuitive clarity of Euclidean geometry; hence, successful applications of its rules are restricted to flat planar surfaces. Applied to any spherical or hyperbolic surface, the identical rules and methods of perspective yield utterly different affective results; producing particular hybrid forms of unintentional ambiguity. Thus the surface context is invariably commensurate with the effectiveness of any pictorial structure, perspectival or otherwise. And, inasmuch as virtually all pictures are in fact flat, the following remarks on visual ambiguity are limited to illusions, or other peculiar marks, articulated on flat surfaces.)


Intentional ambiguity is herein defined as that property of images which simultaneously presents several possible readings or interpretations, with no selected one dominating any other. Such that any specific ambiguous image's meaning perpetually oscillates, shifts, convolutes, or combines with a variety of inferences which are exposed to interpretive change with repeated viewing. By definition, ambiguous images indicate and ensign inversion, paradox, conflict, contradiction and a fluid logical inconsistency.


In many respects, equivalent to cognitive dissonance, such imagery is often enough the source of an extensive spectrum of received sensation, ranging from pleasurable uncertainties to menacing disorientation, to cornucopic confusion. Whether opaque or limpid, internally coherent or diffuse, these images share basic attributes which define their fundamental status. Somewhere beyond these shared attributes, each following type of visual ambiguity represents a definitively distinct phenomenal category, designating the hetero-

genious qualities of their respective particulars. 


The following categories compartmentalizing visual ambiguity are delineated with explicit regard to concatenations of primary difference among the seven types, all of which potentially overlap or meld into sub-categories. Membership in one category as opposed to another may be contingent upon selective criteria other than the specified attributes or particular details of the type. For example, a configuration, identified as type X, embodying all the characteristics generally associated with X-ness is (within the same pictorial venue) juxtaposed against another configuration, type Y, in such ways that the visual density of Y-ness dominates the overall field. Where type X is subordinate to the categorically distinct characteristics of Y-ness, the subsuming category is that of type Y, although it would represent a defiant variation.


Separate from and prior to these categories, an essential dichotomy exists between pictorial ambiguities that unfold while operating within the rules of Albertian space, and those which emerge as a result of playing with, distorting, or otherwise abandoning Albertian codes. This split further distinguishes ambiguous images that A) conform to semiotic domains governed by iconic fidelity from those which B) exist suspended in a sort of pictorial neither-world, having no isomorphic connection to "natural" perception or common experience. In A's case an enigmatic shape, aberrant visage, or strange articulation of any kind appears to exist within the strictures of a perspectival architecture that conforms with normal visual "reality". While in B's case it is the idiosyncrasy of the picture's structure itself that generates any sense of ambiguity, regardless of whether or not its pictorial space is populated with enigmatic shapes or aberrant visages. Within formal-logic terms, the shape-shifting origin of ambiguity in B's instance emerges from the container; with A's, ambiguity it is a bred-in-the-bone quality of the contained.



The Seven Types:


1) Penumbral:


An ambiguous image of Penumbral's type is characterized by the attributes of internal demarcations. Abintra divisions and external boundaries are vague, hazy, indeterminate, shadowy. Configurations or shapes are obscure, shrouded, globular or amorphic. (Perceiving forms of things unknown in a thick fog is a typical Penumbral experience encountered in nature.) The implied distances establishing such a picture's regions or sectors tend to be driven by nuances of color, shading and modeling. Asperities of surface are minimal to none, while the emotional tone is consonant with a plangent--more often than not melancholic--resonance which serves to consolidate and unify the picture's structural matrix.


From Turner, Seurat, Ryder, and Blakelock to Pollock, Rothko, and Resnick: Penumbral imagery is unrestricted in its scope, encompassing as high a variety of motifs and genres as not found elsewhere. 


2) Chimerical:


The ur-Chimera, an issue of Echidna and Typhon, was teratological; a monster parading a lion's head with flames flickering from its mouth, a goat's torso, and the whipsawed tail of a dragon. Medieval beastiaries provide a practically infinite source for chimerical variation: dogs with bat's wings, snakes sporting human heads, birds with fish tails, on and on. We are in the presence of a Chimerical type when any number of radically distinct parts--not always body parts--are cobbled together into a single unified form. 


A fundamental variation of Chimerical ambiguity occurs when any two or more iconic signs are broken up and/or reattached in discontinuous ways, with the unlikely amalgams resulting in various kinds of symbolic hijinks. To wit: breaking both a crucifix and the dollar sign into parts and then grafting them into a single gestalt; likewise fusing an Islamic crescent with the star of David; mixing the hammer & sickle with a corporate logo.


3) Metaphorical:


Aliquid stat pro aliquo, when something stands for something else: Metaphorical ambiguity is thus present when an image or symbol delineating one identifiable complex of reference is substituted for another image or symbol standing for something entirely different. The substituting image (or replacing symbol) is of a totally alien character vis-a-vis the context within which the substituted image makes compelling logical sense. Magritte's green apple in place of a human head, for instance. Wherein the substituting image is set down in a pictorial atmosphere where, by way of its absence, the substituted image's meaning lingers. Such that its coextensive implied presence alters and skews the nature of the reference. The apple is an apple, the apple is a head, the head is an apple, etcetera.  


4) Aposiopetic: 


Becoming silent...Aposiopetic ambiguity applies to that class of forms where the viewer tends to complete the incompletion resident in the image or shape--filling in the gaps, imagining what is left unfinished. Such that the ratio of available visual data to a viewer's anticipated projection, results in a match-up which produces gestalts that are actually not present. Invariably, there is an aleatory component governing this kind of physiological-cognitive operation. What is completed will shift according to the viewer's environmental, psychic and cultural constitution, memory, current attitude, and chain of life experiences they bring to the task. Also effecting an outcome is the degree of revealed or actual visual data available--50% of an image may generate drastically different conclusions than 20% of the same image. The irreducible ingrediant in ambiguous images of the Aposiopetic type is implicate partiality, wherein a novel totality is subjectively drawn out, selected from many possible outcomes which may be altered by change in the fluctuating quantity of exposed visual data.


5) Amphibolic:


Thrown on both sides...Akin to antiphrasis and homophony in linguistics. Amphibolic types are at hand with the coterminous presence of two or more signifieds within the same image, visage, or shape. We experience amphiboly in nature when we see a swan in a cumulus cloud, a griffin's face in knarled roots, or vernal landscape vistas in a moth's wing. Two versions of Amphibolic ambiguity are encountered: 1) When two or more signified are perceived together, simultaneously. 2) When it is a matter of either/or, where one inter-

pretation oscillates with another, where it is one thing or another, not simultaneously both things. 


6) Palimpsest:


Rubbed away again...In the strict sense, a palimpsest is a parchment tablet or vellum surface which has been written or drawn on several times, with each successive drawing erased to make way for the next. Where some trace or residue left from previous drawings comes through, interacting with the final drawing (or text). Within the pictorial domain of a deliberately fashioned ambiguity, two distinct types of Palimpsest emerge. The first is defined by images created with repeated rubbings and erasures of the picture's ground--with some aspect of every layered mark being retained, contributing to the build-up of the surface. The distinguishing singular feature of this sort of Palimpsest resides in the stochastic connections emergent between the layers. Effectively accumulative, the final image is a blend of multiple, distinct, identifiable marks partially removed, reintroduced, obscured, or recovered as a result of numerous passes with the given drawing and erasing instruments.


Exemplified by two or more discrete overlays, Palimpsest's second type is not as much a blending as it is an agglomeration of independent pictorial "programs", analogous to double or triple exposures in photography. The overall effect is circuitous, with each scissile overlay appearing disjointed with regard to all others; since each program is governed by a distinctly different system of choices and linkages.


7) Unheimlich:


Uncanny...Taken from Freud's terminology and related to the Russian critical-literary concept ostranenie (to make strange, to defamiliarize the familiar). An Unheimlich construct subverts habitual perceptions by re-presenting common and familiar objects or occasions unleashed from their usual contexts, and setting them down transmorgrified in odd, strange, unfamiliar surrounds. Consider an image of a teacup lifted from its normal place in the order of such things--a lunch counter--and inserted as a foreground object into a backdrop of cauterized flesh. Assuming the relocation is accomplished adroitly, then, with the rupture of its displacement  the newly confected image will beget a decidedly astringent sensation in the viewer. 


A more classical and aloof version of pictorial Unheimlich occurs when anamorphic images are insinuated into Albertian space. The most convincing, bizarre, and disjunctive example of which is Holbien's The Ambassadors; where a highly elastic and over-pronounced ovoid shape is superimposed on an archtypical Renaissance interior scene with two standing figures in full regalia. Viewed directly, the ovoid shape--located in the center bottom of the painting--appears to be stretching from lower left to upper right, its enclosed interior brimming with unidentifiable details. Paradoxically, it seems naturally placed, it appears to belong there. But its non-decypherable presence, amidst the most refined realistic rendering imaginable, defies all familiar logic. That is until a special viewing device--a mirror-finished cylinder--is deployed to unravel the enigma. The viewer simply holds the cylindrical mirror at a specified distance from the painting's surface, peers at the reflected image in the cylinder and, voila, the visage of a perfectly articulated human scull peers back. Das unheimlich







Throughout the range of the seven types the iconographical effects of their function is, eoipso, a byproduct of their distinctive structural features. Ambiguity is not the condition of each particular structure, but the consequence of them. "The aesthetic state," Edward Bullough wrote," [is one] in which we know a thing not to exist, but accept its existence." And, this is especially the case with cryptogramatic imagery of any stripe. Since the terms of reception, the demands made upon the viewer, require an extra interpretive step in addition to the usual conditions of viewing. 



Frank Gillette


1991 / 2016 / East Hampton NY