It’s time to present another eclectic batch of artworks that question assumptions and generally inspire imagination.
Simon Stalenhag’s illustrations present a divergent version of the eighties. The Swedish artist provides the alternative reality’s historical summary in a review of his work in WIRED. In this case, each digital illustration combines elements of white, middle-class culture with…science fiction. I particularly cherish how the anachronistic or futuristic parts blend with their environments. Sometimes they are almost invisible, and never are they the cause of surprise or alarm to the people in the illustrations. To these individuals, the dinosaurs and technology are as humdrum as any other aspect of rural life. This image of a boy trying to impress a (plainly unimpressed) girl captures the ennui of the rural. Today’s barns are often a mix of the old and the new, if perhaps less dramatically so than here. This artist definitely has a sense of humor, but part of what makes our laughter poignant is the way this reality parallels our own.
Edward Lear came up with his series of Nonsense Botany illustrations in the late 1800s, but absurd scientific nomenclature and teleology still exist and deserve teasing. As with Stalenhag’s illustrations, the familiar becomes unfamiliar becomes familiar.
Beth Cavener Stichter’s sculpture does not challenge our notions of history or reality. What her work does is question humanity. Her animal sculptures are anthropomorphized enough to read as unnaturally human, and yet not in a Disneyfied manner. They are uncanny: simultaneously recognizable but strange.
Guiseppe Arcimboldo’s Renaissance portraits are one of the rewards for studying art history. Some of his paintings make Surrealist art seem staid and conventional. As further proof of humanity’s seemingly limitless capacity for surprise and playfulness, Arcimboldo’s work has been remade and repackaged in an intriguing way. Indeed, we are what we eat.
I learned about Arcimboldo’s portraits through my study of still life painting and tradition. The entire concept of trompe l’oeil is one of recursion. Our reactions to it are of paramount concern to the artist. The classic origin story for this genre is Pliny’s account of an illusionistic painting contest between Zeuxis and Parrhasius. In that story, a good painting will fool animals, but the ultimate artwork fools the painter (who should know better). Reactions to tricksters are not always benign. William Harnett’s arrest for counterfeiting in 1886 certainly sounds absurd. John Haberle made similar work at that time. Both Haberle and Harnett lead viewers to make certain assumptions, and then those assumptions (and you) are manipulated.
An important thing to keep in mind about recursive, subversive, and trompe l’oeil artworks that it is not purely a power trip for the artist. That puckish quality is a sly way of making you rethink or rev up your analytical skills, and to realize just how subjective reality truly is. This sort of artwork is first one thing, then another, and finally a tangled mix of the two. Your second experience of the artwork colors the first, but does not replace it.
These examples should support my previous (tiny but more coherent) defense of trompe l’oeil as a conceptually rich genre. This is also not my first post about recursive art.