painting the paradox of emptiness

The studio is the place where there are few rules and so my practice is based on the question ‘what will happen if’?  Trying to pin down the opposites of figure and ground is fraught with the frustration of trying to solve a nonsensical problem, however, I have discovered that the language of paint is such a subtle and magical thing that it is able to speak for me.  The energy I bring to the painting studio is transmuted into the work itself and becomes the life of the paint.  Each time I lay down a colour, spread and mingle different tones, explore the effects of texture and make decisions about presentation, I am becoming the paint itself and it becomes my voice.  There develops an awareness that the paint, the painting and the painted merge into one and the sense of separateness dissolves.  The clear PVC sheet becomes a membrane, a thinly spread division between the temporal and spiritual, which then dissolves because it too, is empty.


Barbara O'Sullivan: No Beginning No End Of Beginning (detail)

No Beginning No End Of Beginning (detail)
6 panels, each 92 x 61 cm, PVC and Acrylic on canvas


I am inspired to create work which may demonstrate some of the qualities emptiness embodies; namely openness, spaciousness and the union of opposites.

Because emptiness encourages a deep appreciation of the physical world, I am motivated to reinterpret that appreciation in my work. I have been compelled to ‘rethink the way things actually are’ and simultaneously reconsider the processes by which I complete my studio work. It is this affirmation of creativity that I take into my studio and underpins ‘the leap of faith that artmaking entails.’


Barbara O'Sullivan: Emptiness Series # 12

Emptiness Series # 12
60 cm diameter, PVC and Acrylic on board


My experience of emptiness produces immeasurable, sustained feelings of joy which is impossible to impart in words and therefore it is my intention to attempt to convey some of this joy through painting. In the words of [Ken] Wilber, I need to “to send forth, reach out, and celebrate.” This need underpins my entire approach to painting. It is for this reason that the work is colourful, active, expressive and evocative of some of that exuberance. The paradox of this is that through the realisation of emptiness, colour is inextricably linked to transparency, movement linked with stillness and the sense of self as an individual is linked with the connectedness of all life.


Barbara O'Sullivan: Ten Directions

Ten Directions
71 x 71 cm, PVC and Acrylic on canvas


The interpretation of emptiness and form into figure and ground provides a tangible means to translate opposites into material form and lead to a new understanding of how the creative act can promote the apprehension of emptiness, that most fulfilling, profound and healing of experiences, the experience of “no separation”. … Dualistic concepts are removed, self and other are reconciled, figure and ground become one, form is no other than emptiness and emptiness is no other than form.

– Barbara O’Sullivan

Source:  Extracts from Painting the Paradox of Emptiness – Barbara O’Sullivan’s dissertation for her Master of Fine Arts Degree. This document can be downloaded from the artist’s website, and is highly recommended.

Images and text © copyright Barbara O’Sullivan


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