Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Exhibit Inspirations: Perplexing Perspectives

The Ambassadors, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533. Oil on oak.
Via Wikimedia Commons.
If you have taken any kind of art history class ever, you're probably familiar with the painting The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger, done in 1533. It's the one with the anamorphic skull. You're either rolling your eyes at me (omigod not that fucking skull again) or staring at me in rank incomprehension, and that's cool, I dig. Okay, anamorphosis. It's a thing you can do so that a piece of art can only be seen in proper perspective from a specific point of view. The Ambassadors is the fantastically overused example of two rich dudes surrounded by All Their Stuff, except wait! there's this weird smeary thing! and when you stand in the right place, it's a grinning fucking skull! to remind you that we're all gonna die! - yes, even the rich dudes.  Talk about perspective: hey, so, don't forget, all your stuff is gonna be dust, guys. From the right point of view, we're all just skeletons waiting to happen.

Except anamorphosis is not always miserably depressing. In fact, sometimes it is extremely awesome. Used right, it can be a beautiful reminder that what you see is all dependent on your point of view, and shifting your stance can turn a mess into something magical. Plus, it's about science. Bam, science! I'm a really big fan of art that actively engages the brain and makes thoughtful use of the strange and marvelous ways that our eyes make sense of the world. It's fun and exciting and gives me that same thrill of discovery that Magic Eye pictures used to give me as a kid, even after the headache that inevitably came of staring at swarms of dots for hours on end. (Did I just go and spent half an hour on their website giving myself exactly the same headaches? Yes. Yes I did.) Except that with anamorphic art the level of artistry is usually pretty far above the leaping-pod-of-dolphins type of image that you find in the Magic Eye images (which are stereograms, not anamorphic images, so it's not their fault) and also? you can put them anywhere, little gems to be uncovered in a city street or cafe bathroom.

So today I have three examples of fabulous, inventive art that makes use of the unique and wonderful properties of light, vision, and perspective in their engineering. I find these pieces totally inspiring in their playfulness and weirdness, and so I have imagined them here together as the basis for an imaginary exhibit on the joys of perception...

This 3D Lego army was a piece of street art at the 2011 Sarasota
chalk festival. Created by Leon Keer, it was "inspired by Chinese 
Emperor Qin Shi Huang's Terracotta Army 'in honor of the arrival 
of Ego Leonard and to support his release out of his custody.'"
Via Wikimedia Commons

1. Watch out for giant snails: First, I have this wonderful article by Robert Krulwich from NPR on recent anamorphic art. It includes works by Julian Beever and Nagai Hideyuki, with images of their drawings from both the "right" perspective and a "wrong" perspective, so you can see both the strange mess and the magic perfection of the images they create side by side. As Krulwich says, "I love looking at things knowing they aren't there, but seeing them anyway." Indeed.

2. Historical bones laid bare: I'm not sure how I stumbled across these amazing photos created by Shawn Clover, which combine photographs of the devastation of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake with images snapped in 2010, but they are mindbending. Clover managed to align his camera so perfectly with the camera in the original photos - over a hundred years earlier - that there's no sense of collage at all; instead, each photo shows a city rippling in between the past and the present (well, the relatively distant past and the relatively recent past) in a completely seamless, faintly mystical way, as if the San Francisco of a century ago was much, much closer than we like to think.

3. Scrapheaps cast stylish shadows sometimes: I've been spending a lot of time on This is Colossal recently, because there's so much to love there, but these recently-featured sculptures by Tim Noble and Sue Webster were really pretty superlative. They took a bunch of discarded scrap wood and piled them up into what looks, to the casual eye, like, well, abstract heaps of junk. But one carefully-placed lightsource illuminates them for what they really are: dainty, detailed shadowcasters, which throw perfect outlines of people onto the walls. There is order in chaos and a method to madness, after all.

Would you go see an exhibition made up entirely of works like this - fantastical, playful, elaborate creations designed to give the eye the special kind of joy that comes with being asked to see what isn't there? I would...

1 comment:

  1. I've never seen that painting before, so I guess I must have taken all my art history type classes before anyone thought that was important. All we got were paintings and statues with eyes that followed us around the room.

    Those photographs are pretty neat.


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