It is, initially, hard for me to justify why anyone would ever worry about trompe-l'œil anymore. At their best, trompe-l'œil artists might just be labeled masters of special effects, sort of industrial beings focused on making an impressive product without meditating on why you should make such products in the first place (falling short in the equation that “impressive object + meaning > impressive object”).
Furthermore, the objects or images that are mimicked, in how they are fawned over by the artist and in how they are objects that are usually memorials from the artist’s life, are nostalgic not in a history reviving way but in a limiting way, having validity for the artist alone, as a lover might hold the photograph of his lost beloved, the photograph having no similar meaning in anyone else’s hands.
Then of course, there is the basic and ever-present objection, usually leveled at 2-D trompe-l'œil artists, that their effects can be handled by machines. Photo theory especially likes this, the argument that in the world of 2-D replication of reality, a painting has little reality whereas a photograph actually uses the light of reality to imprint an image that retains a bit of actual, real objective existence.
These thoughts come my way because there is a fair amount of really fine trompe-l'œil art on view in Los Angeles at the moment in the work of Kaz Oshiro at Las Cienegas Projects and Steve Wolfe at LACMA. Furthermore, on a recent trip to Miami, I encountered even more of Oshiro’s work at Emmanuel Perrotin, a sparse collection of objects that have become Oshiro’s trademark. Both artists are extremely skilled in their craft, their effects are peerless, and as could be predicted from the paragraph above, the word on the street about these two artists ranges from people being impressed to those who are downright apathetic. Some dismiss them, others champion them. I admit my own reactions have included this entire range of opinions. There is something about trompe-l'œil, however, that strikes to the core of art, its illusions both interesting and slightly disappointing. On one hand, it’s innocuous, on another hand, dangerous enough for Socrates to kick painters out of the Republic for their crimes.
But first, a little description. Oshiro’s show at Las Cienegas Projects includes two pieces. Large in the space, one work is a yellow dumpster which no doubt ranks among the many technical trompe-l'œil feats that Oshiro has achieved over the years. Full sized, the object (or painting for it‘s made of stretcher bars, canvas, paint, and bondo) is perfect, recording every stain, every gash, every ding. The second object in the room is an oblong entity, hanging, perhaps best described as a rectangular box which juts out slightly from the wall on one end. The object resembles nothing and though has trompe-l'œil features, isn’t mimicry in the traditional sense — it may recall a ceiling duct, but representationally speaking, you cannot say with confidence that is anything particular other than a sculpture or a painting. This small show in Los Angeles occurs at the same time as a much larger exhibition at Perrotin, the last show for the Paris gallery’s outpost in that florid Floridian town, featuring more of the oblong boxes alongside more Oshiro icons like his dust paintings, his trash bins, and his modular speaker arrangements.
Oshiro’s objects mimic reality, but the reality they mimic is the reality of painting. Painting’s reality is that of surface and armature (a support), a 2-dimensional image that becomes a three dimensional object. It is still just an image having no practical purpose (Oshiro's speakers don’t make sound, the trash can cannot receive rubbish) or existence as true things. Oshiro’s objects are not objects in and of themselves like a ready-made. Instead, the image is everything. Donald Judd described this way of thinking as a way to, quoted in James Meyers’ Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties, “project(ed) a rational order onto the perceived world.” Oshiro’s objects are representations that push closer and closer to becoming things, but like paintings never make it. Oshiro exists in a clear legacy. From Zeuxis’s grapes, to Baroque ceilings, to American painters like John Fredrick Peto and William Harnett, to Oshiro’s teacher Daniel Douke, the game is mimicry but the stakes are philosophical. They are half-way houses of reality.
- Ed Schad
(Images: Kaz Oshiro, Untitled Still Life (Abstract Painting in Turquoise, Duct Tape), 2010. Acrylic on stretched canvas, 20 1/2″ x 75 1/4″ x 19 1/2″, Installation shot, Kaz Oshiro's "Home Anthology 2"; Kaz Oshiro, Dumpster (Yellow with Blue Swoosh), 2010. Acrylic on stretched canvas over panel and caster wheels, 43″ x 75 1/2″ x 33 1/8″ inches. Courtesy the artist and Las Cienegas Projects)