Dan Gottlieb Figure | Ground
March 23 – May 18

Figure-ground relationships in art concern the perception of a subject within its environment – usually its background. Artists, from impressionism and through various movements in the 20th century, incrementally dissolved figure-ground distinctions. Interestingly, this devolution was parallel, especially early in the century, with an explosion of contemporary ideas in physics and psychology. Cubists and Futurists incorporated concepts of speed and multiple viewpoints, fracturing the picture plane into fragments, flattening space until figure and ground were often indistinguishable. By mid-century, color-field painting and other movements of the avant garde disposed of subject altogether, fundamentally altering figure-ground traditions.

The devolution of subject and narrative beyond abstraction was the artistic milieu into which my coming of age and education in painting, printmaking, and photography took root and fired my imagination. It settled into the way I see everyday objects and places and a constant strain in my work.  As an artist, my interest in the ambiguity of figure-ground perception – that place between waking life and impermanence – is where I find great beauty and inspiration.

In a departure from recent exhibitions which centered on environmental concerns like climate-induced wildfire, Figure Ground focuses on this core aspect of my work and includes a wide diversity of subject matter organized around my aesthetic explorations of ambiguity, mystery, and impermanence in forest walks, on city streets, spiritual spaces, and in private settings.

My sincere thanks to Craven Allen Gallery for this, my fourth opportunity to share work in this space. I hope viewers of Figure Ground will take a mindful moment with the pictures and perhaps reflect on our impermanence and the ever-changing beauty to be found everywhere.

Dan Gottlieb (b. New York City, 1953) studied art and biology (SUNY Buffalo, a Regents Scholar) before relocating to California where he lived for ten years as a student (SDSU, art and environmental design), cabinetmaker, and artist. It was there that Dan began experiments with alternative photographic processes and a 40-year career in museum design (at the San Diego Museum of Natural History).

Dan moved to North Carolina in 1984 to direct exhibition design at the Mint Museum in Charlotte (1984-1990) before appointment as director of planning and design for the North Carolina Museum of Art (1990-2020) where he oversaw the Museum’s architectural and environmental transformation for which he was honored with numerous state and national awards for design and environmental accomplishments.

Throughout his museum career, Dan maintained an active studio practice, developing a unique method of printing with a process of his own design, combining archivally printed photographs with multiple layers of paint and laborious finishing.



Past Shows

Season Five

Dan Gottlieb

March 12th – April 16th, 2022

Artist’s Statement

I am moved by nature’s brilliant forest forms and ephemeral blur of nature’s uncertainties – but terrified by the clanging alarms of environmental calamity. The comfort of four predictable seasons has disappeared – a fifth season of extremes is a weird new uncertainty.

I am especially interested in accelerating forest wildfires, foreshadowing global change. This collection was primarily inspired hiking the high country of Sequoia National Park in December 2021, in the aftermath of last year’s devastating KNP Complex and Windy Fires that decimated many groves of magnificent giant sequoias. Thousands of these incredible trees perished and many more will suffer delayed mortality.  Megafires throughout the West are inevitable. 

My December excursion to Sequoia was planned as the first in a project to witness impacts of wildfire largely caused by tragic combinations of severe drought, ill-conceived corporate and public policies, and escalating development into wild areas (the Urban-Wilderness Interface). Fittingly (I suppose) from Sequoia, heading north to the site of the Sierra’s massive Caldor Fire, I was forced back by an unusual “atmospheric river” of extreme precipitation from the Pacific. 

As a hearing-impaired kid often cocooned in a private world, I’d squint at light, absorbed in the passing blur of the street.  Still today, I find comfort in that place to make my pictures – impressions of light, place, and nature’s grand experiment.

My process 

I use a recto-verso process of my own design, combining inkjet-printed images and layers of acrylic paint applied to the back (verso) of transparent panels. I then sand the front (recto) with increasing fineness to the desired finish, the surface floating a few millimeters above the image.   

Dan Gottlieb 

Born and raised in New York, Dan moved to Durham in 1990 to lead planning and design for the North Carolina Museum of Art. He retired from NCMA in 2021, having overseen the environmental transformation of its degraded site to a museum-within-a-park.  Dan’s art and design education was at SUNY Buffalo then San Diego State University, supporting himself as a cabinetmaker. During his ten years in California, he explored its remarkable enviorments and began his experiments with alternative photographic processes 


Closed, For the Moment



As America’s civil society erodes with terrifying speed and facts are re-cast as fake, it might seem trivial to dwell on nice pictures of nature. Or – just perhaps – reflecting on nature’s grand experiment now is more relevant than ever.

My own interest in and appreciation of nature’s ever-changing patterns deepens with the years. Our planet is an incredible laboratory of bio-chemical chance, evolution, and pattern – all in motion. These pictures attempt to evoke a personal view of nature’s fixed and shifting patterns of light and form.

I confess to photographic tendencies of a late 19th / early 20th Century Pictorialist, crafting soft-focus landscapes imbued with a certain romanticism, albeit made with my own processes, and with ample physical manipulation. I’m most comfortable with one foot in photography, one in painting, and a third in design and craft.

Landscapes in 4/3 time: Jazz is so interesting – any good tune has literally endless variations. I think its structure can be an apt metaphor for my perceptions of nature’s cool improvisation: an endless interplay of fixed and variable ingredients. Walking a forest’s shifting light, energy is syncopated with predictable and unexpected variables. A great tree’s awesome form bends in the wind. Leaves scatter in gorgeous patterns. Shadows shift and I walk in rhythm with a 4/3 camera to an upward swing and long exposure. If lucky, a good landscape is composed with the promise of art – and relevance.