The first iteration in a three-part exhibition series, Expanding Narratives uses the formal relationship between the figure and the ground in Western art history as a conceptual springboard into discussions around visual representation, the museum space, and the role of the Smart Museum’s collection in fostering the exchange of diverse perspectives.

The exhibition tells a familiar story of aesthetic progress—from naturalism to abstraction to a plurality of contemporary art practices across media—but gives pride of place to the work of women and people of color. It introduces the idea of figure and ground and then demonstrates the myriad ways that artists throughout history manipulated, debated, and, in some cases, ultimately eradicated the dichotomy altogether. It features works in a variety of media—drawn from the Smart’s collection and supplemented by a number of important loans from University of Chicago alumni and Chicago-area collectors—including single-point perspective landscape paintings that act almost like windows on the natural world, modern works that play with perspective or use multiple viewpoints, surrealist paintings that create new realities, abstract works that emphasize surface quality and artifice over illusion, and even sculptures and installations that invite the viewer to enter into a figure-ground relationship with the artwork itself.

Through these works, the exhibition examines the social, political, and creative impulses that help drive the creation and subversion of illusionistic space in art. The Figure and the Ground challenges visitors to consider all the ways their own senses of perception and perspective can be shaped through the museum space.