Fans of skillful painting and clever trickery will be delighted by new exhibitions now open at Wausau's Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum. The shows will be on display until June 1, 2003.
The Woodson is the first museum to pair trompe-l'oeil ("fool the eye") paintings from the Old Masters with work by America's contemporary artists in that field, in dueling exhibitions that opened April 5.
"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" showcase five centuries of "fool the eye" artwork. These complementary trompe-l'oeil exhibitions are wonderfully appropriate for an opening in April, the traditional month for tomfoolery and deception.
"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 art form 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 European favorite since birds were tempted to fly through the painted windows of Pompeii. The genre became a highly-developed specialty in Rembrandt's time, when artists competed with each other to see who could fool viewers into thinking their depicted objects were real.
The 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 Old Masters.
Peto's trompe-l'oeil specialty was 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 galleries.
An exception is Clapper's "Which Stamp is Real?," a series of oil paintings 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 an 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, later chosen by the U.S. government as the official plane for airmail.
Eric Conklin will unveil the first "perspective box" created in over 300 years. Since the Dutch perfected this tool in the late 1600s, artists have been trying to recreate the illusionary magic of such boxes.
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 or she is seeing a three-dimensional Dutch interior. But walking around the box, one finds that all has 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."
The Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum is open Tuesday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 12 to 5 p.m. The museum is closed Mondays and holidays. Admission is free. The museum is located at 700 N. 12th St. in Wausau (the corner of Franklin and 12th). For more information, call 715-845-7010 or e-mail email@example.com.