Editor's note: The Brandywine River Museum provided source material to Resource Library for the following article or essay. If you have questions or comments regarding the source material, please contact the Brandywine River Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:


Reality Check: Contemporary American Trompe l'Oeil 

September 11 - November 18, 2010


The Brandywine River Museum will feature the work of 22 contemporary trompe l'oeil artists from across the country in Reality Check: Contemporary American Trompe l'Oeil,on view from September 11 through November 18. Ranging from the personal to the universal, the themes and subjects include pop culture, nostalgia, surrealism, irony, nature, and homages to artists of the past.

A French term meaning "fool the eye," trompe l'oeil describes art that tricks viewers into thinking they are looking at actual objects rather than representations of them.  Part of a long tradition of illusionism dating to antiquity, trompe l'oeil's popular appeal has endured through the centuries. 

The artists represented in Reality Check demonstrate a high degree of technical mastery and entice viewers to become immersed in the act of looking, drawing them in with the trickery and deception inherent in trompe l'oeil.  While these artists represent a link to earlier American masters of trompe l'oeil, each is striving to distinguish his or her work from the past and to offer audiences new perspectives.

Among the artists featured is Alan Magee, who creates paintings not as technical feats, but as works that invite the viewer to see something new when looking at a familiar subject.  Robert Jackson offers a pop art sensibility as the back drop for his trompe l'oeil work.  In Target the Artist, he wryly suggests the vulnerability of being an artist in the face of critics and the public.  Otto Duecker paints masterful trompe l'oeil portraits that play with our perceptions.  He paints iconic images as though they are photographs taped to cracked and weathered walls. 

Scott Fraser's paintings combine unlikely objects, creating mysterious images that seem to be puzzles for viewers to solve.  Mikel Glass produces dynamic images that appear to literally leap from the canvas and address issues of creativity, anxiety, and frustration.  Sarah Lamb works within the classical tradition of trompe l'oeil in terms of subject and composition, referring back to the Dutch masters and creating images inspired by nature. 

Debra Teare's work follows the conventions of traditional trompe l'oeil in the use of the box or cabinet as a structure in which to display objects that protrude into the viewer's space, but her subjects are contemporary.  In Must Move Forward, she draws from pop culture with her combination of toys and memorabilia from childhood.  Will Wilson's trompe l'oeil paintings often involve an intrusion into the viewer's space. A number of illusions are at work in Convexed.  There is the figure reaching out of the canvas, blurring the distinction between the fictive space of the picture and the real space of the viewer; there is the trompe l'oeil frame -- in the process of being created by the artist; and there is the illusion of the distortion made by the convex "mirror" that reveals the scene.

The exhibition will consist of over 40 works borrowed from private and public collections across the United States.  In addition to the artists mentioned above, the exhibition includes fine work by Eric Conklin, Gary Erbe, Chris Gallego, Woody Gwyn, Steve Mills, G. Daniel Massad, Janet Monafo, Greg Mort, Charles Pfahl, Ron Rizk, Nelson Shanks, Daniel Sprick, Michael Theise, and Gregory West. 

In America, a period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a particularly fertile time for this type of painting. The Museum has one of the strongest collections in the country of such work, including first-rate examples by William M. Harnett, John F. Peto, John Haberle, Alexander Pope, George Cope and many others.


Online exhibition catalogue

The Brandywine River Museum has debuted its first online exhibition catalogue for its latest exhibition Reality Check: Contemporary American Trompe l'Oeil.

"This catalogue among the first, if not the first, exhibition catalogues to be available exclusively online," said Jim Duff, director of the Brandywine River Museum. "We can reach a wider, more global audience, and make them aware of this exhibition."

The catalogue includes statements by each of the artists about a selected piece in the exhibition. Each artist was asked to write up to 500 words addressing such topics as why they chose the subject and how they achieved the results; how and why they became interested in trompe l'oeil, some of the recurring themes and subjects in their work, and more.

The online catalogue will remain available online after the exhibition closes. It will reach audiences that cannot visit the exhibition yet want to learn about it and see the art.


(above: Robert C. Jackson, Target the Artist, 2009, Oil on linen. Collection of the Artist)

In this playful yet poignant painting, Jackson suggests the vulnerability of being an artist in the face of critics and the public.

The artist's remarks:

"As an artist, one works day in and day out in solitary so there is way too much time to ponder. After our loss of Andrew Wyeth, many of the ensuing art publications extolled him for being a significant American artist, yet, on the other hand, they seemed to have a caveat and to demean the 'passé' choice of realism through which he conveyed his art. Of course, that became fodder for my pondering, and I found it dismaying as to the need to demean art that has brought us a beautiful and soul-searching look at our existence. Does art really need to adhere to the trends and pop sensibility to be valid? Can't art transcend the whims of culture? Could it be possible that realism (as Andrew Wyeth's work attests) allows for one to be even more conceptual, more spatial, and more compositionally minded than the accepted art fads? And even further, can't contemporary realism build upon and learn from the various art movements yet maintain a respect for the traditions and craft? Such questions led me in Target the Artist to hang my artist against a 'pop' wall -- centered in the cross hairs of a target."


(above: Will Wilson, Convexed, 2004-2005, Oil on linen. Private Collection

Wilson's paintings often involve intrusion into the viewer's space. In Convexed, a number of illusionistic devices are at work. There is the figure reaching out of the canvas, blurring the distinction between the fictive space of the picture and the real space of the viewer; there is the trompe l'oeil frame -- in the process of being created by the artist; and there is the illusion of distortion by the convex 'mirror' that seems to reveal the scene.

The artist's remarks:

"My painting Convexed is a self-portrait in which I allude to aspects of my past, present, and future as an artist. The past is represented by the interior of the Schuler School of Fine Arts in Baltimore, Maryland, where I began my formal art training and taught for a number of years. I knew those sculptures well, as they were undying slaves used in my study of form and figure. The heroic plaster of Adam and Eve's expulsion from the garden looms above my head. The pair is leaving Eden full of knowledge, but their journey promises to be a difficult one not unlike the transition from art student to professional artist. The present is shown by my 'in the moment' act of painting. The future is represented by the tip of the brush breaking what appears to be the hard and fast boundary of the frame's gilded edge and moving into the mystery of the unknown. All at once the past and the future exist in the moment -- the only place they can exist."

Editor's note: Resource Library readers may also enjoy:

For biographical information on certain artists referenced in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Brandywine River Museum in Resource Library.

Links to sources of information outside of our web site are provided only as referrals for your further consideration. Please use due diligence in judging the quality of information contained in these and all other web sites. Information from linked sources may be inaccurate or out of date. TFAO neither recommends or endorses these referenced organizations. Although TFAO includes links to other web sites, it takes no responsibility for the content or information contained on those other sites, nor exerts any editorial or other control over them. For more information on evaluating web pages see TFAO's General Resources section in Online Resources for Collectors and Students of Art History.

Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2010 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.