Eye Spy in Salem

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Erect Pose

Divine Intervention

Self-Centered Mirror

All representational art is an optical illusion, the representation of three dimensional objects and space on a two dimensional surface. But when we think of art and illusion, we generally think of things such as trompe l’oeil paintings, the visual conundrums of an M.C. Escher, and the hypnotic geometries of 1970s Op Art, art works that rely primarily on skilled handwork to fool the eye.

The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, currently (through May 1, 2011) has something quite different on dazzling view in its Art & Nature Center. Eye Spy, Playing with Perception is an exhibition of works by 11 contemporary artists who technologically manipulate the viewer’s eye with everything from photography to digital imaging and holography.

“By manipulating the most basic components of perception – light, shadow, line, color, shape, motion and depth – the artworks in Eye Spy trick our eyes and fool our brains,” reports Jane Winchell, the Sarah Fraser Robbins Director of PEM’s Art & Nature Center. “Visitors to the exhibition will delight in the beauty of these mind-stretching objects.”

Probably the closest to traditional painterly illusionism are Yanick Lapuh’s oil on wood paintings, “Divine Intervention” and “Our Very Survival,” neo-Op Art abstractions by an artist who works to blur the lines between painting and sculpture.

Larry Kagan’s ingenious steel sculptures appear to be abstract in their material configuration, yet they cast representational shadows on the wall behind them, Kagan’s sleight of light being “to induce viewers to actually look at the shadow rather than solely at the steel.”

Several of the artists work along the line between art and technology with a sense of experimentation and gamesmanship. Betsy Connors creates wall and window displays with holography. Rufus Butler Seder, of Eye Think in Waltham MA, makes optical glass tile images that appear to move as the viewer moves past them. Aaron Weissblum, a board game designer, shows two-sided puzzles and camouflage picture cards.

Daniel Rozin plays interactive tricks with mirrors. And Robert Lazzarini uses algorithms to design distorted version of everyday objects, in this case a maple chair and a teacup.

Is it art? Science experiment? Entertainment? Whatever it is, Eye Spy should have an appeal to a broad audience. Not my cup of tea, but the Peabody Essex has assembled an impressive cadre of new media artists to play with the perceptions of its visitors.

[Peabody Essex Museum, 161 Essex St., Salem MA, 978-745-9500.]


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