Delighting in Doubt: Deceptive Art

Between belief and disbelief, certainty and uncertainty, trust and distrust lies doubt. Doubt can be deliberate questioning or a state of indecision, resulting in a reassessment of what reality means or a paralyzing suspension between contradictory propositions. An uncomfortable condition, as Voltaire observed, but preferable to certainty, which is inherently absurd. Or some surprising gap stretching intellect and emotion, resulting in delight. Join us in this intriguing gray area as we prepare our Winter 2013 Doubt issue.

Six days ago, NASA posted a composite image showing the most distant galaxy in the observable universe (inset). Its light traveled 13.3 billion years to reach Earth.

Over seven billion people inhabit Earth. Earth is the fifth largest of the eight planets in the Solar System. The Solar System resides in an outer arm of the Milky Way galaxy, which contains about 200 billion stars. There are more than 170 billion galaxies in the observable universe. And light emitted from beyond the observable universe hasn’t had time to arrive here yet. Meaning what we know is minuscule compared to what we don’t.

The little that we do chance to know comes from information derived from our senses, augmented by some seemingly sophisticated devices. Of course, our senses and devices are limited and unreliable. And the multiple processes by which we organize, identify and interpret available sensory information to represent and understand ourselves and our surroundings are even more so. In some cases, they actually deceive us—and sometimes that’s for our own good. Without processes that, say, create a false sense of constancy or fill in the blanks left by sensory inputs, we wouldn’t dare take our next step.

Last fall, Tony Rosenthal’s 1967 sculpture Endover was still standing [on end] in Regent’s Plaza at The U of M.

I learned most of this as an undergrad at The University of Michigan in the Sixties, a place and time that called everything into question. And celebrated the doubt that ran rampant as a result. The backdrop for my excursions into uncertainty ranged from the de rigueur artwork that adorned dorm walls–Escher’s mind-bending prints and trippy op art posters–to a delightfully deceptive 2300 pound revolving steel cube that balanced on a corner and could be rotated by a reasonably sized child.

Since it’s a dreary November day, allow me–for the moment–to skip over the crucial role that doubt plays in epistemology and other areas of inquiry and share what I find most enjoyable about the doubt engendered by the visual arts. Here are four sets of examples, both historic and contemporary, that I particularly like, followed by a short slide show:

Trompe l’oeil art. The term, which translates as “trick the eye,” was coined during the Baroque era to refer to works where a two-dimensional surface appears three-dimensional to the viewer. The techniques required to achieve this date back to an understanding of perspective in Antiquity that was substantially refined during the Renaissance. Thus the boy in Pere Borrell de Caso’s charming 1874 painting Escaping Criticism seems to climb out from a picture frame. And a nude man seems to break through the canvas that contains him in Mikel Glass’s 2000 painting Emergence.

Those same techniques have also been applied to architectural elements. The bridal chamber oculus at the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua, Italy that was painted by Andrea Mantegna in 1473 gives actual viewers the illusion of looking up into the sky while fictional viewers peer down at them. And the fully functional building at 31 Milk Street in Boston seems to be under construction thanks to the 1986 mural painted by Richard Haas. The commercial value of such arresting art has not been lost on companies such as Nationwide, which sends the message that life comes at you fast through a mural that spills over to a parking lot installation in Columbus, Ohio.

Anamorphic art. The word “anamorphosis” comes from the combination of a Greek prefix and noun and refers to the re-shaping or re-forming of one image into another. Sometimes called “slant art,” it requires special devices such as polished cylinders or mirrors or specific vantage points to reconstitute distorted or hidden elements. An abstract sculpture in Shigeo Fukuda’s 1984 installation Reflections on a Piano turns into a realistic representation when viewed in the mirrored gallery wall. A skull obscured in the lower center portion of Hans Holbein the Younger’s 1553 painting The Ambassadors becomes evident when seen from a certain oblique angle.

Some of the more dramatic effects are achieved in public spaces. A yellow ellipse floating above Milan walkways in Felice Varini’s 2010 Ellisse nel trapezio consists mostly of fragments painted on building walls. And, in the able hands of artists such as Julian Beever, a smear of chalk becomes a deep chasm or a massive sunken bottle of Ballantine’s commissioned for the company’s 2009 Leave an Impression campaign.

If these are mere tricks, people in Japan deem them museum-worthy. There are 16 devoted to the pleasure of deception, most notably the Takao Trick Art Museum.

Impossible objects or figures. Similar to trompe l’oeil art, these two-dimensional forms instantly suggest three dimensions. But in all cases here at least part of what is perceived is something that could never exist in the real world. Careful consideration reveals that the frame of a perfectly possible cube is intertwined with some “magic ribbons,” bands that could never be reproduced in an actual model, in Escher’s 1957 lithograph Cube with Magic Ribbons, his first depiction of a truly impossible object.

That all this is done with a wink is implicit in Jos de Mey’s paintings. A 1997 piece shows a realistic Dürer owl, the Flemish symbol for both theoretical knowledge and the wily fool, perched on an impossible stone frame. In a more cheeky move, math and computers have turned the impossible into the tangible. A seemingly impossible model (SIM) has been constructed of the fence in Sandro del Prete’s drawing The Garden Fence. And Mathieu Hamaekers’ 1997 sculpture Unity has ensured that the most impossible object of all, the Penrose triangle, sits in a small Belgian village.

Op art. Op (“optical”) art does not aim for realism in the standard sense. Abstract in nature and often composed in black and white, it uses two-dimensional surfaces to create unnervingly realistic sensations in viewers: movement, flashing and vibration, swelling or warping and the like. The term first appeared in a 1964 Time magazine piece referring to Julian Stanczak’s Optical Paintings show, but oft-cited examples such as Victor Vasarely’s 1937 painting Zebras precede this usage by many decades.

While op art was co-opted by the Sixties counterculture and became–sometimes literally–part of the fabric of our lives, artists continued to rework the form. Jim Isermann, whose 2010 Untitled consists of polystyrene panels for a pedestrian ramp at Cowboys Stadium, has produced pieces that still feel fresh. And Briget Riley, who has given us op art icons such as the 1961 Movement in Squares, has matured to a more subtle aesthetic such as that informing her 2007 wall painting Arcadia.

These examples serve as reminders that doubt–at least the intellectual or artistic sort–need not be unpleasant and that certainty–apart from being absurd–can be downright boring. And that even what we view with both certainty and pleasure can be made more engaging by drawing back the curtain a bit. Recently, I learned the technical meaning of the word “entasis,” which is the convex curve given to a column, spire or other upright structure to correct the illusion of hollowness or weakness that would normally arise.

Now when I view those straight, strong columns that are so prominent in The Ideal City, the extraordinary Renaissance panel that will grace the cover of our Winter 2013 Doubt issue, I am doubly delighted. First by the perfection portrayed, then by the knowledge that some of the real-world elements on which it was based appear so due to the clever architectural deception that our nervous system requires. And better able appreciated the 2008 kinetic installation honoring those unseen bulges, which embodied sheer joy.

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Note: If this piece has made you nostalgic for The U of M or you simply enjoy seeing excellent photography, check out the “Fall in Ann Arbor” album at randomSPACE.

8 thoughts on “Delighting in Doubt: Deceptive Art

  1. Danuta Hinc

    Very interesting post, Ilse.
    I have been fascinated with “bending perspective” images from the time I was in high school. I even had a chapter in my M.A. thesis on how we “bend our minds” to explain history and “fill in the gaps” in “historical facts” and our own perception in order to justify our interpretations. It is a fascinating field. Great slide show.


    1. Ilse Munro

      Thanks, Danuta. I always figured Earth was nothing more that a speck in the universe, but the advanced course in perception that I took at U of M made me see the world in an entirely different way. I think it was taught by JJ Gibson, who published The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems in 1966, but I’m not sure. I carried around a signed copy for years and then tossed it, thinking inscriptions are silly.


  2. Pingback: Delighting in Doubt: Mystery, Crime and Spy Stories | Little Patuxent Review

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