Psychologists tell us that children first learn to identify and organize visual information by learning to recognize shapes. Thus, the five basic shapes – the triangle, oval, oblong, circle and square – emerge early in our lives as keys to unlocking meaning.

Shape is also the focus of the current invitational exhibition at the 701 Center for Contemporary Art in Columbia. The works of all 13 artists represented in the show are defined, according to curator Wim Roefs, by “distinctive shapes” that “occupy an area where abstraction and representation meet.”

To make sense of the range of pieces on display, I am going to divide them into two categories: works rendered in two dimensions and works rendered in three.

To the right of the gallery entrance is a wall installation composed of 60 sheets of white paper, each of which features a mixed media rendering – ink and collage – of a metal-surfaced building, either a residence or a work studio or a storage shed. Entitled “Tin Skins,” this multi-part work by Morgan Kinne of Charleston explores the infinite variety of idiosyncratic forms to be found in what scholars call vernacular architecture. These are the building designs conceived by non-professional architects using the materials at hand.

Other works on paper include Clemson instructor Kathleen Thum’s graphic studies of carbon-based fuels: three charcoal images of combustible coal rocks that read like black holes in space and one large-scale, ink-and-acrylic-embellished, cut-paper sculpture undulating against one wall like the undersea wreckage of an oil derrick.

Most of the two-dimensional pieces, however, are applied to canvas or board. These include the work of another Clemson faculty member, Mark Brosseau, whose acrylic and enamel piece titled “Exotic” reminds one of a pop art coffee maker about to blow, and Columbia-based Michael Dwyer’s six acrylic and oil explorations of meandering curves and pulsating angles, the former like cool jazz incarnate and the latter like visual bebop.

John Wright of Estill offers six large-scale variations on white and black; in his “Euro II,” a heavy layer of white acrylic paint covers, as if poured from the top, a black surface, but in “Afro II,” the color scheme is reversed. There is no mixing of the two pigments; either one dominates or the other. Betsy Chaffin of Beaufort uses painted collage to play with superimposed shapes; in her “Pamlico,” a Hokusai-inspired wave in black and white straddles horizontal bands of blue and green. Liz Rundorff Smith’s paintings, some in oil and some in gouache, are inspired by everyday objects that she deconstructs into their component shapes.

Columbian Brittany Watkin’s “Kami’s Untenable Fancy” uses a seat cushion covered in purple latex paint and stretched over a green canvas surface to replicate in unorthodox materials the visual effect of any number of now-classic color field paintings of the 1940s.

In a gallery space where objects are not confined to the wall, however, but scattered about the room and thus impelling circumnavigation, it is impossible not to be engaged perhaps most intensely with three-dimensional pieces like those of two artists who have taken ceramic tableware to a new level.

Clemson instructor Daniel Bare has constructed cubes of cups and saucers whose overall surface drips with slip and glaze as if the resulting sculptural form were some sort of bizarre dishwasher accident – a fused object pulled from the appliance after the manic machine had been left to cool. Of the six objects by Bare on display, I much prefer the pieces whose source is a single vessel; his so-called “twisty cups,” for example, are each transformed into what might be mistaken for an undersea relic encrusted with coral. In this regard, they mirror the impressive, large-scale bowls and urns by Sharon Campbell at the entrance to the exhibit; their matte surface of black and gray make them appear to be not contemporary ceramic objects but artifacts from ancient Herculaneum, charred survivors of a cataclysmic conflagration.

Nick Boismenu of Columbia wins the prize for most compelling piece in the current show. In his “Ce n’est pas une peinture” or “This is Not a Painting,” he has applied to a piece of reclaimed hardwood flooring a cube made of stacked unglazed stoneware cups without handles, all thrown by hand. The resulting three-dimensional object has been summarily fixed to the wall where it reads like a giant, straight-edged beehive. The repetitive visual interplay of cup interior and terracotta surface – a symphony of negative and positive space – makes for a show-stopping piece.

Other 3D explorations of shape include Tolulope Filani’s modern take on the elongated human figures found in traditional Nigerian wood carvings and Melissa Stang’s playful, multi-piece, interlocking ceramic sculptures – a variety of oblong pieces with designs scratched on the surface – that the artist herself invites visitors to “re-position” to their liking.

Visitors to the 701 Center for Contemporary Art from now until March 1 will enjoy inspecting how these 13 South Carolina artists have confronted the concept of shape both by itself and also combined with a host of associative meanings.

A recipient of the Governor’s Award in the Humanities, Dr. Tom Mack holds the rank of USC Distinguished Professor Emeritus. Of his six books to date, three are devoted to colorful local history: “Circling the Savannah,” “Hidden History of Aiken County,” and “Hidden History of Augusta.”