Illusion At Fuller Craft: More Than Meets The Eye

by Don Wilkinson

The tradition of trompe l’oeil painting dates back to at least ancient Pompeii, although the French term — which translates to English as “to deceive the eye” — didn’t originate until the Baroque era. It refers to a hyperrealistic painting style that employs spatial illusion — tricks of perspective, composition and shadow — to fool the viewer into believing that what is two-dimensional is three.

Trompe l’oeil has a long and storied history, ripe with symbolism and mythology. An ancient Greek legend tells of the competition between two painters, Zeuxis and Parrhasius. Zeuxis paints a still life so realistic that birds descend from the sky to steal the grapes. Parrhasius responds by inviting his rival to view his painting behind a pair of curtains. But Zeuxis could not part the curtains — they were part of the painting. Parrhasius won.

In 1446, the Netherlandish painter Petrus Christus depicts an anonymous monk in “Portrait of a Carthusian,” in which he includes a life-size fly on the edge of the frame. It is thought by some that the fly represents the demon Beelzebub in sharp contrast to the holy man. The art historian Felix Thürlemann suggests that the fly is “a self-conscious representation of superior painting prowess.”

The eye continues to be deceived by painters such as the 19th century still life painter William Harnett, and modern masters Salvador Dalí and René Magritte. A famed current practitioner is the graffiti artist Banksy, as in his 2006 “Chalk Farm,” in which it appears a maid lifts a curtain on a brick wall in order to dispose of the contents of her dustpan.

It spread to other disciplines, including the use of forced perspective in architecture and set design, and applications in film and animation (where, for example, Wile E. Coyote paints a fake tunnel on theside of a wall of rock in order capture the Road Runner).

However, trompe l’oeil becomes an illusion of a completely different kind when it comes to sculptural objects. Indeed, the point is still to fool the eye, but it is no longer a trick of perspective or space. Instead, the illusion manifests itself in convincing the eye that the object one sees — and the very material that makes up the object — is something other than what it really is.

In “Tricks of the Trade: Illusions in Craft-Based Media,” curated by Michael McMillan at the Fuller Craft Museum, nearly a dozen highly skilled artisans display works that are so mind-bogglingly deceptive that Zeuxis’s grape-pecking birds would be tricked.

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