Fool The Eyes: Artists Who Use Their Skills To Challenge Our Perception (Part 2)

In an earlier post we started a discussion about artists who have used their illusion-making skills to manipulate the viewer’s perception in mysterious or super convincing ways – to fool the eye and trick the mind. You can read that first post here.

Today we continue the thread by looking at the work of two additional artists who are separated by hundreds of years.

The first artist is Giuseppe Arcimboldo, a 16th century Italian painter.

Arcimboldo began his career painting traditional frescoes as well as designing stained glass windows and tapestries. He then became one of the official portrait painters at the Hapsburg court in Vienna. Later he became court decorator, set and costume designer at the royal court in Prague.

It was in Prague that Arcimboldo developed a fascination with creating mind-bending illusions filled with symbolism. Here he started combining unexpected natural elements into arrangements that resemble people posing for a traditional portrait. Combinations of fruits, vegetables, flowers, sealife, twigs and leaves, or even common items such as books and barrels became stand-ins for cheeks, lips, eyes, hair, torso and arms.

Portrait painting using fruit images by Giuseppe Arcimboldo

The symbolic portraits Arcimboldo produced during the last half of his career are extraordinary. Even today – in a world loaded with manipulated visuals – they seem startling and clever, filled with pictorial invention.

Portrait painting using sealife images by Giuseppe Arcimboldo

Some images were based on actual individuals but most of these “portraits” are of types of people – representatives of different trades and occupations. Other images are of allegorical characters symbolizing the seasons of the year or elements of nature.

Portrait painting using images of barrels and containers by Giuseppe Arcimboldo

During his lifetime Archimboldo was modestly successful and recognized by other artists. After his death his name and work quickly drifted into obscurity. It wasn’t until the early 20th century when he was rediscovered by the Surrealists that his work once again gained widespread attention.

Our second artist is Richard Shaw, a contemporary sculptor in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Like Arcimboldo, Shaw has created character portraits built from odd collections of other items. Old paint cans, used brushes, stumps and twigs, wine bottles, and even a toilet bowl float are combined to make representations of human figures. These whimsical and humorous portraits are reminiscent of both outsider folk art and 20th century surrealism. They are also deeply rooted in the Funk Art movement that emerged from the Bay Area in the 1960s.

Shaw says of his work, “I am trying to create a poem about a person, using humor, irony and elegance.”

ceramic figure by Richard Shaw

The characters Shaw creates are fun to look at and his inventive combinations of what were once discarded materials are very impressive. The sculptures become even more impressive when you realize that they are hand made entirely of porcelain clay. None of what you see is the original material.

ceramic figure by Richard Shaw

Shaw collects objects from a wide variety of sources and makes casting molds from them. He then fills the molds with porcelain slip and lets it dry. After the cast porcelain is removed from the mold it is fired in a kiln. It is then decorated with specially formulated glazes and fired again.

Although Shaw sometimes paints glazes directly on the porcelain, most of his final surfaces – with their complex range of detail – are made from decals. He creates the decals himself using a special silk screen process. When the decal is immersed in water it floats free of its paper backing and can be gently transferred to the cast porcelain. Once the decal is affixed to its new surface and dried, the porcelain is fired in a kiln a final time.

ceramic figure by Richard Shaw

Both Arcimboldo’s and Shaw’s figures are built with recognizable elements borrowed from other realms. By focusing on the formal aspects of each element, instead of their functional descriptions, these artists have given new meanings to well-known items. They have also caused viewers to look again and again at a simple collection of objects.

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