Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Painted Prestidigitations

Painted Prestidigitations

By Tom Wachunas

    EXHIBIT: The Mystery and Magic: The Trompe L’Oeil Vision of Gary T. Erbe, at the Canton Museum of Art, THROUGH JULY 19, 2015 / 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, Ohio  www.cantonart.org     /  www.garyerbe.com

    “While there are elements of trompe l’oeil in my work, I have less of an interest in fooling the eye in favor of stimulating the mind.” -Gary T. Erbe

    “…As with any superior work of art, the viewer of an Erbe painting will be rewarded by a prolonged analysis – first of all the immediate overall visual impact of the piece, next a survey of its content, and finally the elusive search for meaning…the subliminal link between spectator and artist.”  -M.J. Albacete

    Like many of us, I’m always interested in hearing how painters articulate, in words, what they think they’re up to. Some explanations can be woefully verbose and arcane, or just the opposite - condescending, terse reminders that the work speaks for itself.
    Gary T. Erbe’s own term for his approach to painted verisimilitude (often called trompe l’oeil, i.e., “trick of the eye”) is particularly informative and inventive - “Levitational Realism.” His oil canvases depict carefully designed assemblages of various real objects that he layered and suspended on his studio wall. The painted shadows cast from side-lighting intensify the sensation of multiple picture planes hovering in a color field or over a flat, often decorative backdrop (such as wallpaper).
    Erbe’s stunning technical skill yields a marvelous color presence and dynamic, which he employs to great effect in unifying all manner of shapes in his compositions. Additionally, their spectacular hyperclarity of surface details can include the startlingly real appearances of glassy, metallic, wooden, or fibrous textures. Even as you get closer and closer, their tactile illusionism generally holds up so well you’d think you’re looking at found object sculptures. Such wow factors aside, more astonishing is the fact that Mr. Erbe is a self-taught painter.
    While many of the works here could be fairly considered in the context of the traditional still-life (including a subcategory called vanitas, a type of still-life with symbolic references to mortality and impermanence), there’s always more than meets (or fools) the eye in Erbe’s meticulous orderings of inanimate ephemera. Call them allegories of remembered lives, indeed eras – his own and others’. Some are tender and perhaps highly personal reminiscences, such as boyhood fascination with magic in Slight of Hand from 2009 (a clever play on ‘sleight-of-hand’?), or maybe friendship with a neighbor in Just Across the Street (2013), or enthrallment with 1950s TV culture in The Big Splash (2001).
    Others are decidedly more brooding or cautionary in nature. Among them, Arrangement in Brown and White (1997) is anything but a pleasant orchestration of earth hues. With the yellow words “That’s The Good Old Sunny South” emblazoned on a green banner in the background, the picture is a stark and sardonic emblem of a horrific chapter in American history. In the huge canvas (60”x70”), Frenzy (2007), four sharks, teeth bared in monstrous grins, rip through an American flag.  In the similarly scaled, surreal Double Jeopardy, is the hare in the foreground running from the four ghostly wolves dashing across the pale, wintry plain, or are all the creatures fleeing an encroaching disaster (manmade?) in the distance, possibly implied by the intense, eerie red glow in the sky? 
    M.J. Albacete, Director Emeritus of the Canton Museum of Art (quoted above), begins his delightful essay on the exhibit by recalling a legend about the ancient Greek painter, Zeuxis. He painted a bunch of grapes so convincingly that birds attempted to eat them. But with all due respect, that’s not the whole story. According to the Roman author Pliny the Elder, Zeuxis was competing against another Greek painter, Parrhasius, to see who could make the most realistic image. When Zeuxis tried to remove the disheveled curtain he thought was covering his rival’s work, he discovered that the curtain was the painting, thus assuring Parrhasius the victory. Were Parrhasius alive today, looking at a painting by Gary T. Erbe, I would remind him to move over, and tell Zeuxis the news.  

    PHOTOS, courtesy www.garyerbe.com (from top): Slight of Hand; The Big Splash; Arrangement in Brown and White; Frenzy; Double Jeopardy

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