I've been reading Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts by Aloïs Riegl. The system and language he develops to explain the progression of the form and objectives of art from antiquity to the second half of the 19th century are sheer brilliance. Here's an excerpt of the introduction of the "Form and Surface" section in the first version of the essay, which was written in 1897-1898 (taken from the english version of the book translated by Jacequeline E. Jung, published by Zone Books, New York 2004):
All things in nature possess form; that is, they extend themselves in the three dimensions of height, width and depth. The sense of touch alone offers unmediated confirmation of this fact. Paradoxically, the sense of sight, that very faculty whose chief purpose is to allow us to absorb impressions of objects outside ourselves, tends more often to deceive us about the three-dimensionality of what we see. Lacking the capacity to penetrate solid bodies, our visual organs can perceive only one side of a body at a time, and this in turn presents itself to the eye as a two-dimensional surface. Only by drawing on previous tactile experiences do we mentally flesh out into three-dimensional form the two-dimensional surface that our eyes actually perceive. This process is naturally performed more quickly the more readily certain aspects of the observed object call to mind experiences of touch. What might appear from a distance as a patch of light or color of a certain size may from a closer standpoint prove to be a series of alternating illuminated and shaded area; this immediately signals the presence of convexities - modeling - and thus the third dimension. The effect is naturally amplified the closer the beholder stands to the natural thing, until finally his memories of tactile experience have won the upper hand so unequivocally that he is no longer aware of the illusion caused by his visual organs. If the process is taken to an extreme, however - that is, if the eye is pressed right up against the object - the effect swings back to the opposite pole: no longer able to survey as a whole those aspects that recall tactile experience, the eye apprehends only a surface.
These reflections allow us to recognize the significance of the distance at which the visual faculties apprehend a natural thing for the viewer's internal comprehension of that things and, by extension, for man's contest with such objects in art. If eye and object are placed in direct proximity to each other - we shall call this the near view - the viewer obtains the impression of purely two-dimensional surface extension. If the viewer backs away somewhat, the eye is able to observe certain aspects of the object that recall tactile experience. This potential increases with growing distance from the object, to a point where the modeling appears most distinct and the impression of three-dimensionality is therefore most convincing and unmitigated. To avoid wordy explanations in the future, we shall call this imply the normal view. When the distance between eye and object exceeds the normal view, an inversion of the process occurs: modeling gradually disappears behind the increasingly dense wall of intervening air until only a solid surface of light or color meets the retina. We shall designate this the distant view.
He goes on to discuss the progression of figure-ground relationship in two-dimensional works. He observers and argues that the ground in the two-dimensional works in antiquity separates figures, rather than acting as a submissive element to the figures and functioning to further the illusion of three-dimensionality in the figures. The dominance of figure over ground started to appear more prominently developed in the post-Alexander Greek Art.
I am fascinated by this section of the book because of the similarity between the progression of my paintings and the prevailing perceptual choice of art in Antiquity. This is especially obvious in my most recent multi-figure painting "Laying it Down", in which the ground is working to isolate each individual figures; the wholeness of the individual figure is put before the illusion of them together in a real space. This ambiguity of spacial relationship between the figures tends toward flatness, which is, however, disrupted by some of the more overt rendering and suggestion of three-dimensionality in the forms. I'm suspecting that this very odd perceptual display is one of the most fundamental reasons for the discomfort in this painting, which then might prompt narrative associations in the viewers trying to "make sense" of this display.