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Magnificent Deceptions


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Patrick Hughes

at Belloc Lowndes Fine Art, through August 31

Those computer-generated Magic Eye pictures that popped up last year in every shopping-mall poster shop and all over best-selling books and calendars have already passed into extinction--a vestige of 1994 as forgettable as Zima and Susan Powter. Translating the bewildering op-art patterns into pictures of choo-choo trains or rhinoceroses simply wasn't worth the effort or the inevitable cross-eyed headaches. I suspected all along that the people who invested in Magic Eye were those who loved technology and hated art.

The well-crafted works of Patrick Hughes, which he makes from wood using a ruler and glue and then painting them, are another matter. Like many paintings that rely on trompe l'oeil techniques, they comment on reality and perception. Trompe l'oeil is not what distinguishes these works, however. Rather than trick our eyes, they trick our entire bodies. And where trompe l'oeil requires the viewer to participate in the trickery, these paintings baffle anybody who passes within a certain radius. The deception doesn't just last an eye-watering minute or two; it is unshakable, even after the methods of its creation are revealed and its effects explained. This London artist has invented a technique that as far as I know has no precedent.

The effect of his paintings is as difficult to explain as it is obvious when one of them is in front of you. (It doesn't work in photographs either, so anyone reading this review is going to have to trust me or see for themselves.) In brief, they depict landscapes and interiors formed by straight lines: book-lined parlors, city streets, or mazes. Hughes paints them on wooden planes glued at angles that duplicate the adjustments for perspective that the eye makes naturally when viewing a scene of this kind. But the edges that should protrude are in fact recessed. Stand still, and the pictures painted on these corrugated structures make perfect sense; approach them, bend your knees, or even swivel your head, and they do strange, fun-house-like things with your senses of space and balance. They're experienced more as rides than as paintings. No artist, not M.C. Escher with his impossible staircases nor Piranesi with his gossamer etchings of fantastic dungeons, can make you as dizzy as Patrick Hughes--as opposed to Magic Eye, which just made you nauseous.

Hughes has been painting for over 30 years, and in that time he's explored in two dimensions the complexities of visual experience with a childlike naivete and a relentless drive to expose as shams the tricks of virtually every nonabstract painter since the Renaissance. (In that way he resembles Harry Houdini, who used to uncover fraudulent spiritualists and magicians in order to highlight his own skill.) In earlier works Hughes uncovered the sham of linear perspective, emphasizing, for example, that the train tracks "disappearing" in the distance are really just a tall isosceles triangle. He simply placed the vanishing point at the bottom of the picture and made the tracks get wider as they went up the canvas. Hughes has fooled around with rainbows and mirrors and has documented other phenomena where what we see is not exactly what's there. Many of these efforts have the flare and, perhaps, the preciousness of visual puns.

At the same time, Hughes has absorbed the influence of art history and developed his vocabulary of fine-art idioms, expressing particular affection for the luminous intellectual conundrums of Rene Magritte and the moody townscapes of Edward Hopper. Like those artists, Hughes cares more about generalities than particulars. His paintings have been cleansed not just of grit but of detail and texture, the better to cast shadows with edges as straight as rulers. In two of the paintings of bookshelves, Reverspective and Perspectivity (even his titles are plays on words--he just can't seem to help it), the books are different colors and sizes but have no discernible titles. Because bookshelves can be so revealing, I found this omission frustrating: Hughes missed an opportunity to make this scene less generic, to give it some character. Similarly his Curving City, Chicago, though it minimally refers to some prominent Chicago buildings, registers no insight on or sociological impression of the city. This seems odd: though Hughes is English, he's made more than one trip to Chicago and is obviously possessed of observational skills and a certain wit.

The demands and limitations of the technique explain at least part of the coldness of these scenes. In other works, however, Hughes uses the demands and limitations to his advantage. The painting that I wanted to experience again and again in this exhibit was the shrubbery maze Panorama. The subject is perfectly suited to Hughes's technique: shrubbery doesn't require much detail, freeing the artist to play with space. Stripped of all ornament and clutter, Panorama hovers a few inches from the wall, a labyrinth that paradoxically cannot be entered.

In the eight years since Hughes came upon this method for building handcrafted holographs--he'd had a different vision of the effect at first--he's made numerous improvements, finding out by trial and error how to achieve the most pronounced dizziness without losing his effects altogether: he scrapped Panorama's predecessor, Panoramania, because he exaggerated the method so much that he lost the three-dimensional look. Now that he's apparently hit upon the ideal proportions and angles, I wouldn't be at all surprised--or displeased--if he gave a manufacturer permission to start mass-producing these babies. They could be the big thing of 1996.

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