BY STEPHEN CUMMINGS,, December 25, 2011

The trompe l’oeil tradition goes back a long way in the history of painting; a Baroque term, so Wikipedia reminds me, used to describe the devices of perspectival painting intended to ‘deceive the eye’ into perceiving great depth where, on a flat surface, obviously none could exist. (Ceilings opening onto the heavens were popular.) Artists working on architecture today are similarly deceptive — Banksy, perhaps most comically — but trompe l’oeil painting refers most often to that class of still life works whose represented objects are depicted in a relatively shallow space, one so carefully rendered as to fool the viewer into believing he sees not a representation, but the objects themselves. The most apt illustration of this tradition dates back to ancient Greece, where, as Pliny tells us, the painters Zeuxis and Parrhasius struck a bet to see whose painting could most closely mimic the real world. Zeuxis’s grapes were real enough to entice birds to swoop down at the supposed fruit, but when he asked Parrhasius to pull aside the cloth covering his painting, the painter realized he had been beaten, for the ‘cloth’ was the painting itself, and while Zeuxis had fooled the birds, Parrhasius had fooled Zeuxis.


Following the Renaissance, trompe l’oeil still life painting proceeded with variable popularity from the sixteenth century through the nineteenth, but the practice was largely eclipsed by the rise of Modernism, sputtering out with provincial Americans producing staid collections of playing cards and other clutter depicted against wooden backdrops. Given the accelerating pace of the twentieth century, it’s no wonder a tradition predicated on artists’ mastery of illusion was shunted aside when our collective focus shifted to ideas, and materials, and a general questioning of tradition itself — not to mention painting’s shift, from illusion to literal flatness.


So imagine my delight upon entering San Francisco’s Triple Base Gallery to find the paintings of Bryson Gill in his new exhibition, The Optimist Gene. Having determined to see the show from a look at the gallery website, I had already been fooled, asking a friend to come along to see “Oh, some paper collages, I don’t know.” As it turned out, what appeared to be folded paper scraps were strokes and daubs of paint, presented in thoroughly convincing trompe l’oeil.


Far from being old-fashioned, Gill’s approach is fresh and exciting. He's embraced the painted focus of Modernism, allowing his ‘paper’ forming strokes to rise from the linen surface of each painting in unabashed impasto. These marks are as much paint as they are mimics of paper texture, abjuring the smoothness of traditional trompe l’oeil in favor of something not nearly so fussy, yet even more convincing. Meanwhile, the paintings’ ‘cast shadows’ are soft as can be, so thin as to appear stained into the fabric, and masterfully carrying off the illusion of depth. In this way, the artist has achieved the Postmodern joke of literal/representational simultaneity. It’s a trompe l’oeil — but! no, it’s just paint strokes.


Filling out these canvases are playfully stained and patterned backgrounds, further emphasizing the flatness of each affair, and in one piece making up the entire composition. A few of the works offer a Picasso-like still life sensibility in which the simplest shapes become suddenly complex elements of one of painting’s classic subjects, but still maintain the light-heartedness of present day. Even a stick-figure is not outside the purview of this artist, whose humble paintings are as pleasurable as they are deceptively simple, and become all the more exciting the longer they manage to linger in your mind.


Through January 1st.