Our eyes take reality for granted, because a street tends to be just a street, a wall just a wall and so on. We know where things are meant to be, and orient ourselves accordingly. Sometimes, however, we shouldn’t be so sure. Art, even if it’s in the corner of our eye, beckons with mindblowing colours and perspectives, especially when artists play with optical illusions, bending limitations.
Artists have been questioning not only our thoughts but also our sight with optical illusions for a long time, although contemporary artists are experimenting with them like never before. These techniques can be classed as Op-Art (an obvious play on Pop Art), in which Victor Vasarely’s straightforward and stylish illusions stand out. They can also be called 3D illusions or, if you want to be ambiguous and sophisticated, trompe l’œil effects or even magical realism. The question artists working in this medium ask is why just reflect when you can refract? Why categorise when you can twist or blur or blend?
Playing with kaleidoscopes is seen as something that only children do (the exception being parents playing with their little ones), but the visual ‘magic’ it creates is highly sophisticated: it ought to be for everyone. Far beyond the funny but banal kaleidoscopic camera eff ect on tablets or phones that we have, optical illusions (the most powerful form of this ‘magic’), give artists the power to create something visually arresting. Hans Holbein the Younger already showed some optical acrobatics in ‘The Ambassadors’ (1533) by painting what seems an awkwardly deformed bone that can only be identified better as a skull from a certain angle or, ideally, from its reflection on a spoon.
Modern artists don’t mix angles or twist reality and illusion with spoons anymore (fun as that may be). A master in drugging our sight for us to see blurry psychedelia clearly and colourfully is Rob Gonsalves. In his painting, ‘Monks’, for example, your eyes rest on clear lines and soft distinct colours as your sight wanders across the painting. But then you bump into some strange figure, an ethereal monk where before there were and should still be clouds seen through a gap between arches. Is it one or the other? Perhaps both! There is no clear-cut reality. You don’t simply look at Gonsalves’ paintings as if they were flat screens: you peep into the paintings’ gaps, which are usually boring negative space that painters just ‘fill in’ after painting the important bits. They become a lens through which we can see varied patterns and details. Gonsalves’ art, as good as fairy tales, makes you return to the dreaminess of playing with kaleidoscopes and becoming a bit dizzy after using them for too long.
Others, like Patrick Hughes, still makes paintings you can hang on a wall, but craft 3D illusions in them. Hughes calls them ‘reversepectives’, reversing the normal perspective by painting objects in the distance on the parts which stick out more, closer to us.
Artistic optical illusions also fly from the museums to the streets. Graffiti is hardly startling for us now, of course, from the lowliest examples in alleys to Banksy’s art (which has recently been exhibited in Rome like traditional paintings). Instead of the usual graffiti on walls, optical illusions in streetart have jumped right off the pavement.
Julian Beever draws optical illusions on pavements with chalk and other artists like Edgar Mueller create similar effects with paint. Lakes, cliffs, even superheroes. It’s a breach of fantasy in our familiar reality, like Gonsalves’, which taps into our collective imagination with references to pop culture, as in Beever’s ‘Batman and Robin’.
Any passer-by can interact with the picture, stepping into it and then probably having a photo taken to post on Facebook, like the artists themselves do. In fact, they recommend it: the illusion works best from the right angle on a camera or phone. Beever and others use anamorphosis, the same trick Holbein the Younger applied, passing from a painting about noblemen to the ground under your feet.
If Oxford has the ‘dreaming spires’, Julian Beever has the ‘dreaming pavements’.