An artist’s trick of the eye
The double take can sometimes be a moment of awareness, a realisation, even a revelation. It happens a good deal in art, especially the best of it. It happened the other day while I was visiting various shows in town. The double take. At the Waikato Museum I came across a modest little black and white photograph of a ubiquitous suburban scene – brick house, garage, concrete drive, car in the driveway; something very ordinary, seen in countless new subdivisions across the city.
Only it wasn’t a photograph. I discovered this when I looked down at the label.
It was the work of Ruth Cleland (a Hamilton-born artist) and the medium was graphite – a pencil drawing.
It was so meticulously rendered that it looked, on first take, to be a photograph.
The French call this trick ’’trompe l’oeil’’. It means ‘‘to fool the eye’’. I was fooled, but being duped was part of the process that triggered an awareness.
One is made to think again about what one is looking at.
Why would someone want to go to such extraordinary pains to reproduce in pencil what could be simply captured in a photograph? In fact, the process probably involved taking a photo of the place and then spending hours copying it. We call this hyperrealism. We might ooh and aah over the skill involved, but there’s more going on here than a mere demonstration of painstaking craft skills.
What the artist wants us to really see is the sheer banality of this urban image replicated a thousand times across the city.
Here is a picture that speaks of conformity, conservatism and commodification in spades. And she got us to think about that because she arrested our eyes using a subterfuge.
Right next door on the same wall of the gallery was a painting by another Hamilton-born artist, Richard Lewer.
It was an image, again, of a very ordinary thing, a red brick building, this time a church, one of those structures of little architectural merit, probably built in the 1970s: pedestrian, unimaginative, a dime a dozen and cheap and nasty.
Lewer paints in a faux naı¨ve style.
It’s a sophisticated form of dumbing down, deliberately employing a form that resembles the work of an amateur painter.
There’s a double take in that itself. Lewer called his painting ‘‘Remember the Sabbath Day to Keep it Holy’’.