What happens when painting brings the background forward?

“Background image” suggests that something hovers in front, like an app on your Smartphone. Background also means underlying information, a deeper context. In painting, the idea of background has existed for centuries, though its traditional function—as the staged space or related details behind the subject—is worth reconsidering in this “screen age” of layered virtual information. Today’s compositions can resist the conventional logic of pictorial depth, and coyly call attention to what lies behind the scenes.

Sonia Almeida, Peter Halley, Ann Pibal, Thomas Scheibitz, and Charline von Heyl use abstraction to bring background forward. In their images on view in “Background Image,” every element exists to create a tension: to simultaneously draw you close and hold you at a distance. How? These painters slice, bar, block and frame the images with marks that cohere just beyond recognition. Nothing is revealed, while background is fore-fronted as a zone, and subject, that remains uncertain—and refreshingly abstract.

Above: Thomas Scheibitz, Schaulager , 2014. Oil, vinyl, spackling paste, laquer, pigment marker on canvas. Museum purchase with funds donated by Barbara L. and Theodore B. Alfond through the Acorn Foundation. © Thomas Scheibitz. Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.