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Trompe l'oeil Exhibitions at Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum


"Visual Deceptions: Trompe-l'Oeil Society of Artists" and "Feast the Eye, Fool the Eye: Still Life and Trompe l'Oeil Paintings from the Oscar and Maria Salzar Collection"

The Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum is the first Museum to pair trompe l'oeil paintings from the Old Masters with work by America's 21st century artists in this field with two dueling exhibitions which opened April 5 and continue through June 1, 2003.

"Feast the Eye, Fool the Eye: Still Life and Trompe l'Oeil Paintings from the Oscar and Maria Salzar Collection" and "Visual Deceptions: Trompe l'Oeil Society of Artists" will showcase five centuries of "fool the eye" artwork when they are unveiled at the Wausau, Wisconsin, museum. These complementary trompe l'oeil exhibitions are most appropriate for an opening in April, the traditional month for tomfoolery and deception. (right: Anonymous (Italian), 18th century, Bag with Celery and Fowl)

"While other museums have displayed the classic trompe l'oeil style of painting before, no one has ever placed such artwork side by side with the modern masters of today," explains Andy McGivern, curator of exhibitions. "We have asked eight of the top artists in this rare field to show us how the trompe l'oeil artform has evolved for today's art lover. There are so many eye-fooling effects in this exhibition, we could be accused of having the most 'deceptive' show in Wisconsin."

Trompe l'oeil paintings have been a favorite of European artistic sensibilities since birds were tempted to fly through the painted windows of Pompeii ­ and plummeted, in painful confusion, on the inevitable rebound. The genre became a highly developed art specialty in Rembrandt's time when artists competed with each other to see who could fool the viewer into thinking the depicted objects were real.

The trompe l'oeil genre was revived in America during the late 1800s when artists like William Harnett and John Peto brought the concept back from their studies of the European Old Masters. Peto's specialty is old, torn envelopes, but he also enjoyed painting currency. Both Peto and Victor Dubreuil, also represented in "Feast the Eye, Fool the Eye," risked counterfeiting charges when they painted their "Five Dollar Bill" and "Two Dollar Bill" images. Currency was considered the ultimate challenge to an illusionist painter because the objects were so familiar to observers, yet considered so difficult to reproduce realistically.

Viewers often accuse trompe l'oeil painters of using real envelopes or currency in their work. "But it's all done with a brush and the naked eye," says Donald Clapper, one of the eight painters from the Trompe l'Oeil Society of Artists who will be exhibiting in the Woodson's galleries. (right: Donald Clapper, War and Peace on Mom's Cupboard Door, 2001, oil on panel)

An exception is Clapper's "Which Stamp is Real?" series that challenges the viewer to tell the difference between a painted stamp and its real life counterpart. When the first of Clapper's paintings in this series was exhibited at a Scottsdale, Arizona, gallery in 2002, the first five people at the preview all guessed wrong. The piece on view at the Woodson features the 32-cent American "Jenny," depicting America's most famous World War I airplane and later sanctioned by the US government as the official plane for carrying airmail.

Eric Conklin will unveil the first "perspective box" created in over 300 years. (see below.) Since the Dutch perfected this tool in the late 1600s, artists have been trying to recreate the illusionary magic of such a box. Conklin is the first artist to solve the puzzle. When a museum visitor peers through a peephole in the side of the box, it appears that he is seeing a three-dimensional Dutch interior. But as the viewer walks around the box, he finds that all the perspective lines and the food table have been an optical illusion.

The still lifes and trompe l'oeil artworks featured in "Feast the Eye, Fool the Eye" and "Visual Deceptions" could be thought of as the precursor to the concept of virtual reality. "Today we take computer-generated special effects in movies for granted," McGivern adds. "But these artists have had to create the same illusionary reality using only canvas and paint. In many ways, the 'wow factor' is more stunning because of it."


"Buttons & Butterflies: Paintings by Michael Riddet"

Through Saturday, Jun 07, 2003 Michael Riddet's exquisite "tabletop" trompe l'oeil paintings - 12 of which comprise Buttons & Butterflies - combine the artist's interests in art, nature, and history. He selects objects from his personal collections, such as historic buttons from a large tin once owned by his grandmother and butterflies from his insect cabinets, to create works that pique scientific curiosity and explore social commentary. And this Gays Mills, Wisconsin, artist, who has been a frequent Birds in Art participant, isn't above occasionally poking a little fun at viewers either.


Eric Conklin Unveils First Perspective Box Created since the Dutch Old Masters

The riddle of how to construct a believable perspective box has challenged artists for over 300 years. Since Samuel van Hoogstraten, one of Rembrandt's students, perfected the technique in the late 1600s, artists have been trying to recreate the illusionary magic of such a box.

Now trompe l'oeil artist Eric Conklin has solved the puzzle. His prototype perspective box will be displayed at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, Wisconsin, from April 5 - June 1, 2003.

A perspective box creates an optical illusion inside its painted interior wall panels. When seen from a peephole, the inside corners seem to vanish and the panels appear to take on the shape of an old Dutch interior, complete with a food-laden table, arched windows, and household pets.

"I tried to match every technique the Old Masters used," says Conklin from his Maryland studio. "No nails were used to construct the box, the interior panels were sealed with rabbitskin glue, and I mixed my own oil paint pigments by using the same supplies that museum conservators use."

Conklin also had the advantage of studying two of the only six perspective boxes still in existence today. David Bomford of the National Gallery in London gave him access to his studies on the van Hoogstraten box there, and the Detroit Institute of Arts allowed Conklin to examine its van Hoogstraten box in their conservation department.

"I wanted to discover how the Old Masters were able to create a life-like panorama without the aid of photography or the complex physics formulae we have today," Conklin explains. "The breakthrough came when I discovered a flaw in the Detroit perspective box design. After that, I knew I could create an accurate model. I just didn't realize it would take me twelve months to paint it and build the box from archival materials."

"Think of perspective boxes as the first TV sets of the wealthy," Andy McGivern, curator of exhibitions at the Woodson Art Museum, says. "By looking into that peephole, viewers saw a world of elegance and delight. Some perspective boxes had a moral message and others tried to recreate famous cathedral interiors and fantasy rooms."

This first perspective box in 300 years is being shown at the Woodson Art Museum in conjunction with the dual exhibitions "Feast the Eye, Fool the Eye: Still Life and Trompe l'Oeil Paintings from the Oscar and Maria Salzer Collection" and "Visual Deceptions: Trompe l'Oeil Society of Artists." Five centuries of trompe l'oeil oil paintings will be paired with the latest 21st century artworks from eight members of the Trompe l'Oeil Society of Artists. Conklin is one of the original members of that artist society.


"An Introduction to Trompe l'Oeil" by Larry Charles

"Trompe l'oeil" is French for "fool the eye." It's an art form that's been practiced for over 3,000 years as a way to create the illusion of three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional surface. Because of the extreme accuracy and tightly rendered details required for trompe l'oeil paintings, only a handful of artists make a full-time career from these artworks today.

It's not unusual for an artist to spend several weeks or months capturing the exact likeness of a crinkled dollar bill or a tiny, engraved stamp. The lighting effects and the variety of textures -- from glass to wood to fabric -- that are required for these life-size paintings make them the most meticulous artworks of the fine art genres.

What makes an ideal trompe l'oeil painting? First, the objects rendered must be full-size and look believable from a foot away from the picture surface. Second, the objects painted tend to be relatively flat so that the human eyes cannot detect any lack of real depth to them. Many artists will overlap flat objects -- such as envelopes or currency -- to create the illusion of depth and space. Others will use dramatic lighting so that the shadows painted underneath the objects will create the depth deception. Third, the artist will use a variety of painting techniques to create realistic-looking textures in the painting.

Broken glass, scarred wood, satin ribbons, rusted metal, crinkled paper, smeared chalkboards, and frayed string are just of a few of the textures a professional trompe l'oeil artist needs to be able to paint to fool the eye of the viewer. The more textures in a trompe l'oeil painting, the more realistic it will appear.

Finally, a quality trompe l'oeil painting also has to be a work of fine art. An eye-catching subject matter, an artful composition, and a well-thought-out visual statement are essential. It is not enough to simply paint a flat piece of paper or coin on a bare background; the fine art aspects should intrigue the viewer enough to become involved with the painted subject matter.

The Trompe l'Oeil Society of Artists was founded in early 2001 by Larry Charles and Don Clapper as a means to perpetuate this profession and to educate art lovers about this scarce art form. Art lectures, magazine articles, school visits and gallery exhibitions are just a few of the means the Trompe l'Oeil Society uses to share these picture techniques with new audiences.

There are currently nine members exhibiting full-time with the Trompe l'Oeil Society: Gayle B. Tate, Eric Conklin, Michael Molnar, Gregory West, Gerald Hodge, Michael Gallarda, Don Clapper, Larry Charles and Gary Erbe. Their gallery affiliations range from Singapore to London, from San Francisco to New York City. The Society members' artwork can be seen at the Ettinger Gallery in New York this March, the Woodson Art Museum in Wisconsin this spring, and at the Van de Griff/Marr Gallery in Santa Fe later this summer.

"And it's all done with the naked eye and a paint brush." The Old Master, John Haberle, said it first. Trompe l'Oeil Society artists practice it every day.

Larry Charles is a founder of the Trompe l'Oeil Society of Artists and an exhibitor in "Visual Deceptions: Trompe-l'Oeil Society of Artists"


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