How easily my eyes can be fooled. In a first glance at some works of art, I might think they're made of fiber, yet it turns out that they're paintings. I see what looks like wood, but it's actually ceramic. I am tricked once again by another trompe-l'œil (French for "deceive the eye"). Historically, the term refers to an art technique that uses realistic imagery to achieve an optical illusion, one in which the depicted objects exist in three dimensions. For me, whether correctly or not, the term encompasses all manner of outwitting us into considering something other than what it truly is.
Last week, I visited the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno for the first time. It was an unexpected gem. My specific interest was in "Marking the Infinite," the exhibit of artwork by Aboriginal women in Australia. From the distance of the gallery entrance, I was immediately struck by what I thought was a huge work of fiber art--a giant net or spider's web. When I moved into the space and examined the wall piece more closely, I realized it was actually a painting.
Although my initial impression was disproved, I learned that I was not far off the mark, for the creator of this work, Regina Pilawuk Wilson, is considered a gifted fiber artist who began painting in 2002. The patterns on the canvas mimic the stitch and weave of the syaw, large cylindrical fishnets made from the pinbin (or bush vine). When mission life imposed other ways of living on Aboriginal communities, knowledge of how to make the nets vanished. So Pilawuk Wilson traveled to a distant outstation to learn the nearly extinct art and, in turn, has taught the stitch to younger generations in primary schools. Her paintings, done with synthetic polymer paint, are also a conscious effort to revitalize lost traditions.
Another painting by Pilawuk Wilson appeared, at first, to be a kind of quilt made of plaid fabrics, but again it was an interpretation of the syaw (fishnet).
At the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, Massachusetts, I enjoyed an exhibit called "Tricks of the Trade." Over and over, I was duped into believing the piece on display was made of one material when it was created with others. When I saw the next image, the first thing that registered in my mind was thick, rich fabric or leather fine enough to drape. Wrong again! It's made of clay, wood, and steel.
Of course, the next item I was viewing had to be a stunning basket.
Then I realized it wasn't made of plant material after all. The title card informed me that the artist used maple wood, ink, and paint to create the illusion of a basket.
Floating ever so delicately, light as air, the feathers in the boxes are not real feathers, but intricately hand-carved by Miriam Carpenter out of white oak endgrain, and includes steam-bent wenge (Millettia laurentii) spines, pyrography (decorating wood with burn marks) and dye.
Without looking at the description under the next photographs, try to determine what they're actually made of. Is it metal, stone, paper, cloth?
Looking at these and other objects of art made me pause and reflect on how our quick perceptions cannot always be relied on as accurate. The branch on the forest floor strikes fear in us because it has the shape of a snake. The sandals I saw in a museum in Seoul that I assumed were woven from reeds were actually constructed with tightly twined handmade paper. A painting I peered at in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, trying to figure it out, was composed of earth, rather than something made by human hands or a machine. And so on. Sometimes, though, as the joke goes, "a cigar is just a cigar" or a tree is just a tree.
As artists we can readily deceive viewers into thinking they're seeing something other than what's there. As art viewers, we can delight in that deception, in the surprises we encounter when we stop to examine more closely rather than rush past.
Questions and Comments:
What artworks have surprised you when you realized they weren't three-dimensional after all or were made of something entirely different? Do you feel duped by the artist or are you tickled by the "trick"?
As an artist, do you use trompe-l'œil in your work? If so, how?