Trompe l’oeil /trômp ‘loi/ — noun — visual illusion in art, especially as used to trick the eye into perceiving a painted detail as a three-dimensional object. Fr., deceiving the eye.
By Ed Blair
Artists have attempted to beguile the eyes of viewers with clever techniques for centuries. While the actual phrase originated in the Baroque period, when it referred to perspectival illusionism, trompe l’oeil dates much further back. It was, and still is, often employed in murals. It was used in Greek and Roman times, as famously illustrated in the ruins of Pompeii. There was widespread fascination with this type of perspective drawing during the Renaissance, and it enjoyed a renaissance of its own in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Visitors to the Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington will have the opportunity to enjoy this artistic style in an exhibition opening Saturday, May 21, where the work of Gary Erbe will be on display. Combining trompe l’oeil realism with modernist tendencies, Erbe has created captivating illusions that are entrancingly intricate and hypnotically absorbing. Titled Master of Illusion: The Magical Art of Gary Erbe, the exhibit spotlights the engaging oil paintings of the artist who coined the term “levitational realism” to describe his work.
A native of Union City, New Jersey, Erbe has been painting professionally for over 40 years. Originally working as an engraver, he made the decision while in his mid-twenties to pursue painting full time. The museum’s exhibition traces the career of the self-taught artist from his early trompe l’oeil works to his more recent paintings that focus on juxtaposed objects and the dynamics of composition, form and structure.
Erbe explained levitational realism as an illusionistic depiction of objects where they seem to hover in space. “I studied the nineteenth century trompe l’oeil works of artists like [William] Harnett and [John F.] Peto,” he said, “but I wanted to be original. I wanted to create an atmosphere surrounding subject matter where it seemed to be floating in space, but at one point I realized that trompe l’oeil had its limitations. I wanted to add new elements of abstraction. I wanted the work to be about ideas, about something I envisioned that was familiar but did not exist in reality.”
Erbe’s subjects are inspired by popular culture and range from nostalgic images of childhood pursuits and national pastimes to American jazz and the golden age of 1950s radio, television and film, to American history, nationalism and contemporary social issues. “The rules of trompe l’oeil do not allow for human figures,” he said. “You can’t fool the eye if a person is in the work. So I occasionally will use silhouettes to give the feeling of a human presence.”
Lisa Chalif, the Heckscher Museum’s curator, noted that “Mr. Erbe’s impeccable skill imbues familiar objects with a heightened realism that evokes the pristine, otherworldly clarity of surrealism. Painted from carefully crafted constructions of objects belonging to our shared American experience, Erbe’s work is at once aesthetically complex and profoundly engaging to all.” She added, “I have come to admire the artist’s gracious and generous spirit as much as his remarkable work. The museum is sincerely grateful to the private and institutional collectors who have entrusted us with their paintings, sculptures and constructions. Mr. Erbe’s collectors are passionate about his art, and we are honored to share their works with a larger audience.”
Via extensive solo exhibitions, Erbe’s work has been presented throughout the United States, and he has garnered numerous honors and awards. He has exhibited internationally and participated in a group show, American Art on the Brink of the 21st Century, organized by Meridian International in Washington, D.C., that traveled for two years in the Far East. Erbe’s works hang in a number of museums across the country and can be found in many public and private collections throughout the world. He currently maintains a studio in Nutley, New Jersey.
The Heckscher Museum of Art, located at 2 Prime Ave. in Huntington, will present Master of Illusion: The Magical Art of Gary Erbe through Aug. 28. Meet the artist on Sunday, May 22, from 3 to 4 p.m. as he leads a gallery tour exploring his artwork and creative process. Registration is recommended.
For further information, call 631-351-3250, or visit the museum website at www.heckscher.org.