Got trompe l’oeil?

Myron Stephens at Solomon Dubnick

Myron Stephens, <i>Displacement of a Shell</i>, 1998, oil on wood.

Myron Stephens, Displacement of a Shell, 1998, oil on wood.

Up until the mid-19th century, it was taken for granted that successful art came in the form of images that fooled the eye, boosting the narrative qualities and making it more believable.

Then things changed. Photography could illustrate much more accurately than painting, and the art world’s views toward the medium began to lean more toward the intellectual realm. By the turn of the century, highbrow art critics scorned painters focused on illusion. But the critics’ lofty concepts never really meant much to the people. Furthermore, even in the art world, every action creates an equal reaction.

During the late-19th century, a small movement sprang up in America. John F. Peto, William H. Harnett and a few others were making a modest living painting small still-lifes and very effective trompe l’oeil ("fools the eye") based on 17th-century Dutch and German tradition. Their paintings never achieved critical success but the masses loved them for their detail; the work often hung in saloons. Later, the paintings’ icon-focused nature influenced some pop artists, but the genre is still relatively overlooked.

Thus, it is surprising to find such a strong influence of this style in the paintings of local artist Myron Stephens, currently on display at the Solomon Dubnick Gallery. While the trompe l’oeil is as accurate and eye popping as that of Peto and Harnett, Stephens’ approach is much more conceptual, fantasy oriented and startling. These paintings pit nature and development against each other with no winner. In most of the pieces, a fuzzy, painterly, Gerhard Richter-style landscape is painted on wood housed in the artist’s own architectural frame. Then the trompe l’oeil, sitting on the surface, is a common object, but it feels out of place. In one painting it appears as though a red bell pepper is bolted to the face—a rusty fastener, squeezing the life out of the poor little icon of nature.

The technical aspects of these paintings are awe-inspiring. The quality of the trompe l’oeil parallels its genre’s roots, the landscapes themselves hold up as decent paintings, and the frames illustrate that Stephens is a good carpenter as well as a painter.

The play between nature and development is clear, but it seems as though we aren’t being presented with the whole picture. Rusty bolts, screws, metal straps, sea shells, bell peppers, trees and telephone poles—all of these things are presented to us at no end. Stephens obviously feels something for his subject, but fails to tell the viewer specifically what that is. The same could be said for the frames. They read like windows, doors, or simply as architectural components finished in such a way as to feel old and weathered. Why?

To add to the mystery, Stephens has a sense of humor. Many of the titles read as personal jokes. One has a reference to a nude behind a bell pepper, but you don’t see a nude. While we don’t know exactly what Stephens is thinking, we can tell he’s having fun.

Perhaps this mystery, what Myron Stephens brings to us but doesn’t thoroughly explain, is necessary for good art. It’s not as if he’s going out on tangents; everything in use here—the landscapes, the trompe l’oeil, the frames, the struggle of nature and development, even the humor—tie in together. But we need him to not explain everything in specific detail, because if he did, the room for thought would disappear. Perhaps the most sophisticated thing that Stephens does with these paintings is to breathe life into an archaic style. Peto, Harnett and company created little gems that asked no questions and consequently don’t hold up well, but Stephens illustrates that it wasn’t because of technique.