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Illusions in Art for Young Eyes: Paintings by Eric Conklin

November 15, 2008 - January 18, 2009


In need of a reality check? If so, look no further than the trompe l'oeil paintings of Eric Conklin. The Davidsonville, Maryland, artist takes realism to the nth degree in his quest to create images that trick the viewer. In fact, he takes it as a compliment when people describe him as a deceptive fellow. It means his trompe l'oeil paintings are doing exactly what they should -- deceiving viewers into thinking that a two-dimensional surface has a third dimension. He loves the "Gotcha" and "Aha" moments that his paintings elicit. (right: Eric Conklin, All American, oil)

Conklin conceived, designed, and executed the forty-six works for Illusions in Art for Young Eyes (Woodson Art Museum, Wausau, WI, November 15, 2008 - January 18, 2009) as a way to interest young people in art. Happily, Conklin's definition of "young" is ages seven to 100. His goal is to use his illusionist paintings to engage viewers of all ages to look at art with new appreciation.

In his own words, Conklin remembers his first museum experience: "I was eight years old and my parents took me to the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore. The day was bright and sunny and I wished that I was sliding into home plate rather than looking at old musty paintings. What would have transformed this experience for me? A super hero? The Lone Ranger? Jiminy Cricket? My friends -- Goofy, Pinocchio, and Superman -- were missing."

In considering the artworks for his Woodson Art Museum exhibition, Conklin asked himself, "How could I combine the icons of popular culture with the magic of illusion?" He responded by assembling paintings that bridge the gap between beginners and more advanced art lovers.

Among Conklin's more capricious subject matter for young viewers are classic animated cartoon characters that appear as figures standing in shadow-box frames. The figures may look three-dimensional, but in reality they have only the two dimensions of height and width. Other favorite subjects include antique wooden decoys, beetles and bugs, coins and paper money, playing cards, violins, and chalkboard notes. In I Hate Snakes, Conklin creates a trompe l'oeil wall tableaux using the iconic jacket, hat, and whip of movie hero Indiana Jones.

At a higher level, Conklin invites viewers to look more closely to understand how the objects he paints appear to lift off the canvas, thereby fooling viewers into thinking they are real.

The techniques Conklin uses are rooted in those used by seventeenth-century Dutch Masters. The French term for such paintings is trompe l'oeil, meaning "to fool the eye." The intent is to give objects the appearance of depth where there is none by careful placement and painting of shadows and by concentrating on the subject's scale in proportion to the objects around it. To accomplish this, he must adhere to five rules:

--The objects represented must be actual size or appear to be actual size.

--The objects must be non-living and stationary.

--The objects must be entirely within the artwork.

--The artwork must have a short depth of field, usually just a few inches deep.

--The artwork must be painted in a realistic style, almost photographically.

Perspective tricks intrigue Conklin, especially those employed in anamorphic painting. For this specialized form of trompe l'oeil, the artist creates what appear to be distorted images by using various perceptual and mathematical tricks. When viewed from a certain angle, however, the subject matter becomes instantly clear.

Another fascination of Conklin's is the Dutch perspective box, also known as a peep show. An enclosed box requires the viewer to look into one of two holes to reveal a three-dimensional room interior. When the side of the box is removed, the same room appears elongated and distorted in a two-dimensional format.

Using both trompe l'oeil skills to fool the eye and ingenious toys based on seventeenth-century designs, Illusions in Art for Young Eyes challenges viewers' imaginations while delighting their eyes. After all, illusion is in the eye of the beholder -- and sometimes it's fun to be fooled.


(above: Eric Conklin, The Golden Chalice, oil)


(above: Eric Conklin, Terminator, oil)


(above: Eric Conklin, Indy 4, oil)


(above: Eric Conklin, Gotcha, oil)

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