Visual Arts

The "Masters of Illusion" exhibit challenges your perceptions at Tempe Center for the Arts

Whether you realize it or not, your day is a minefield of perception pitfalls. It starts with that first glance in the mirror, when your nose looks like a flamingo beak and that pimple looks like Mount Vesuvius. On the drive to work you wonder if that asshole cut you off or if you just weren't paying close enough attention. And at work, all it takes is one raised eyebrow from your boss to launch you into a frantic spiral of self-doubt.

It's a constant game, negotiating reality. And we need all the practice we can get.

The "Masters of Illusion" exhibition at Tempe Center for the Arts is like a mental fitness center. The show features 21 realist, photo-realist, and trompe l'oeil (French for "trick the eye") artists who paint, sculpt, and draw pieces meant to imitate reality with the utmost precision. Which they do — and they do it well. So well, in fact, it felt as though my negotiation skills went through boot camp.

Science says things (i.e., matter) have mass and occupy space. Those things can be measured, observed, and hold unique, specific properties. But the art in this show means to shake up those notions.

The best example is a ceramic sculpture of a candy dish by Kille Jo Harned. This small work is a simple silver pedestal candy dish holding a mound of those chalky, grandma-style pastel-colored mints. The metallic glaze of the dish looks like real silver and has a hyper-realistic patina. The candies are perfectly sculpted — each has a slightly varied shape and that strange, grainy texture. Set this sculpture on a coffee table and someone is bound to pop one of these babies in their mouth.

And that's why this piece is so nutty. It does almost everything the real thing does. It takes up the same space; it reflects light off its surfaces the same way, and it makes someone react just as they would if it were a real candy dish. Essentially, it means the same thing as a real one. The only difference is these "candies" would chip your tooth, not freshen your breath. But what if you don't like that kind of mint? (I don't think very many people do anyway.) If you're not going to eat a mint, this sculpture serves the same exact functions as the real thing. And how is that not real?

These pieces present a constant challenge to the ways in which we decide what's what.

Of course, this isn't a new concept; thanks to Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte, whose 1928 work The Treason of Images (the famous painting of a pipe with the inscription, "this is not a pipe") started this dialogue. I wouldn't say the artists in this show push the conversation much further; they just keep it going.

Take John L. Schieffer's Meeting Place, for example. Schieffer has a background as a graphic designer, children's book illustrator and art conservator who restores 19th-century American art. It's the perfect résumé for this kind of anal-retentive work, and his meticulous nature shows in this stunning oil painting.

In it, a crumpled, rose-colored fabric hugs a pile of glass marbles. I would argue that capturing the depth and translucent properties of glass is one of the most challenging endeavors in painting — and Schieffer makes it look easy. More than 20 glass marbles huddle in the folds of the fabric. Midnight blue, ochre, seafoam green and ruby red swirl, bounce, and play off each other's round surfaces. My favorite marble was just a classic clear orb that Schieffer masterfully fills with color as if the clear glass were reaching out and sucking in any hue that got too close. The glowing swashes of color make it look like some sort of crystal ball for the cosmos.

Of course, it's easier to know the difference between a pile of marbles in your hand and a painting of marbles. But the painting forces you to be very specific with your definitions. Anyone might say, "There's a bunch of marbles." But that could apply to the painting or a handful of the real things. No big whoop when you're talking about marbles, but what about a bigger issue? Makes me wonder about other times we slack on such definitions and what the consequences of our laziness might be.

Not all the works focus so heavily on the discussion of definitions, however. The paintings of local artist Suzanne Falk, whose work I was thrilled to see in the show, are beautifully realistic but focus more on narrative — a non-linear sort of coo-coo narrative. I was already a fan of her work, so I really loved seeing The Day the Scissors Came to Bunnytown, in which Falk (who, surprisingly, is self-taught) displays her masterful grasp of photo-realism.

This still-life incorporates a number of nostalgic items, carefully arranged like a shrine to someone's childhood. All the stuff — a child's pair of scissors, a Mason jar with a butterfly inside, a bottle of molasses, a skewer puncturing rainbow marshmallows, and other random things — sits against a backdrop of a campy children's book illustration. The objects could easily have adorned the dresser top of some kid in the 1970s, and each one invokes the viewer to imagine some sort of childhood adventure to go along with the memento.