As I write this I am looking at a screen. Or am I looking into it? The computer screen conjures pictorial space, but its apparent depth is paradoxical. Premised on a peculiar mixed metaphor—a desktop that is also a window—the interface poses contradictory visual cues. The picturesque mountain range that lurks behind the gleaming tabs and buttons beckons my eye to look into deep space, but the cascade of windows ironically obscures my view, and those windows cast little shadows onto one another, as well as—impossibly—onto the mountains behind, flattening the vista to an image and truncating the space of the screen to an indeterminate shallowness.
Little shadows like this are known in the language of graphic design as drop shadows—simple digital representations of the shadow one flat surface would cast upon another. For me, this ubiquitous design element has become a powerful symbol of our strange world. The space of the screen might seem innocuous, but as a painter I cannot help looking at it in the light of the long history of pictorial space that has played a major role in the changing faces of Western painting. Despite being at pains to appear modern and rational, the strange space of the screen draws from that deceptive form of painting called trompe l’oeil, whose hallmark is an ambiguous pictorial space caught somewhere between the depth of Renaissance perspective and the flatness of Modernism. Those polar opposite approaches to conjuring volume—the illusion of deep space mastered in the High Renaissance versus its total abandonment by the High Modernists—have both been hailed as heralding new kinds of painterly truth. But trompe l’oeil, on the contrary, has long attracted suspicion, its extraordinary mimicry seen as a trick.
Pictorial space tells us a lot about how we conceptualize space more generally, which in turn determines how we build our world and live in that built world. In this way, the trompe l’oeil pictorial space that surrounds us on screens is of a piece with our illusionistic moment in architecture. Like user interfaces, the structures being built all over the Western world and beyond are at pains to appear modern(ist) and rational, but are everywhere clad in trompe l’oeil deceptions, images of “real” materials—brick, stone, slate—that are not actually there. This strange new paradigm has been christened by architectural critics Pseudomodernism. The term comes from the cultural critic Alan Kirby, who coined this unnerving new -ism to point more broadly to a world in which things aren’t quite what they seem.
Let’s first look at the truth claims made on behalf of pictorial space in order to show the peculiar place that trompe l’oeil occupies, and from there, we can zoom out to the trompe l’oeil illusions that surround us today, examining whether these deceptions—unlike the supposed “truths” of Renaissance and Modernist art—are there to mesmerize, to incite desire, or to draw our attention away from the underlying structures of our world.
Ultimately, I want to argue for the unlikely virtues of trompe l’oeil. I think trompe l’oeil painting can show us things that more “truthful” images can’t. Using my own painting practice as an example, I aim to offer a psychoanalytic view of illusion by revealing the act of looking itself as a participatory activity—one in which the failures of trompe l’oeil paintings to stand up to closer inspection can help us to bear witness to the failures of the trompe l’oeil deceptions that surround us today, in the hope that we might to fix our gaze at our world rather than look through it.
The deep, coherent space of the Renaissance’s perspectival painting on the one hand, and the radical flatness of Modernism on the other, mark two extremes of the possibilities of the space in—or of—images. And despite their polar opposition, both have had some of the grandest claims—claims of truth—made on their behalf. Though trompe l’oeil painting combines elements of both of these modes—conjuring illusory depth (like Renaissance images) and also making the eye attend to the flat surface of the painting (as does Modernism)—it has never inspired claims of truth, only distrust.
Let’s look at Renaissance pictorial space first. The Renaissance mastery of mathematically coherent perspectival illusion was long hailed as the crowning achievement of Western painting and became totemic of Western rationality. The story goes that, drawing from ancient geometers like Euclid, the artists of classical Greece and Rome achieved certain kinds of perspective—axial and aerial perspective—but that these elements unraveled with the splitting of the Roman Empire into East and West. The axial perspective found in Roman paintings of architecture flattened into the trapezoidal “stage” space of Byzantine art, and the aerial perspective of Roman landscape painting became abstracted into the dark-light banding characteristic of Gothic images. Over the Middle Ages, some illusory depth slowly reappeared in artworks until finally, the heroic Italian humanists weaved the strands of pictorial space back together into a new, coherent, single-point perspective that turned the hard, opaque surface of the canvas or wall into a transparent window.
Central image: Christopher Page, installation view of Blind Gallery, 2018. Photo by Edouard Fraipont. Courtesy of the artist and Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro.
In order to open this illusory window—sometimes called Alberti’s window after the writer of the first popular treatise on rational perspective construction—the Renaissance artists had to imagine space in a new way, as a mathematically logical totality whose laws all bodies are subject to. In so doing, according to the celebrated art historian, Erwin Panofsky, these painters kicked off the Enlightenment rationalization of space (and everything else) that reached its climax with mathematicians and philosophers such as René Descartes. In conjuring rationalized, mathematical space for the first time, Panofsky claims, Renaissance perspective marked a new scientific objectivity in painting. In these illusory depths he saw a new truth.
But isn’t there a lurking contradiction here? Despite its coherence and rationality, this objectivity was in the service of illusion. The perspective paradigm reigned over Western painting for hundreds of years until Impressionist and Modernist innovations began to exploit the contradictions at its heart and ultimately dismantle the foundations of Renaissance pictorial space. With early Modernists such as Cézanne and Monet, we witness pictorial space becoming shallower, the background figures in the painting coming to meet those in the foreground; with Cubism and later Modernists we see the figures in the painting becoming hard to distinguish from the brushstrokes on the painting; and with High Modernist abstraction, namely color field painting, Alberti’s window is finally closed and we are delivered to flatness.
This radical new flatness that vanquishes pictorial space and blocks our eye from entering the painting was hailed, by the art critic Clement Greenberg among others, as awakening us from illusion, from our ideological slumbers, revealing the essential and universal qualities of painting (color, surface, composition) and allowing us to appreciate the frank materiality of the paint and canvas—and by extension the material reality of the world—as if for the first time. As the art historian T.J. Clark puts it, “flatness appeared as a barrier to the usual bourgeois’ wish to enter a picture and dream.” So here at the other extreme, we have pictorial opacity as awakening, and flatness as truth.
Unlike Renaissance and Modernist art, trompe l’oeil is a slippery category that is not specific to a historical period but spans the long history of Western art from Greco-Roman antiquity to the present, and also encompasses different kinds of art and architecture. It is exemplified, though, by two related, and often intermixed kinds of painting. First there is the exquisite panel painting that reached its height in the seventeenth century, which transforms the humble canvas into, say, a fine wood with objects—feathers, papers etcetera—pinned to it, casting little (drop) shadows upon the illusory surface. And second there is the frescoing of architecture that turns walls and ceilings into marble or stone or brick, and makes niches, pilasters, and cupolas appear where there are none.
The pictorial space of trompe l’oeil painting is ambiguous, unlike the calm coherence of High Renaissance depth or the resolute flatness of High Modernism. Trompe l’oeil at times draws our eye through its surface, making portions of the canvas or wall into windows, while at other times it keeps our eye hovering on the surface by transforming its texture and making us perceive illusory objects as projecting out toward us. Our eye does not settle with trompe l’oeil, but tries continually to adjust, to find a surface on which it can safely land. In creating such an ambiguous space, trompe l’oeil does not offer coherence and understanding, but fascinates and perplexes. This might explain why it is not thought to hold painterly truth, but on the contrary deemed to be the deceptive art par excellence.
The Victorian art critic John Ruskin was a notable detractor of trompe l’oeil. He saw this art of “imitation”—as he contemptuously called it—as eliciting but thin amusements, pleasures that “extend only to the sensation of trickery and deception occasioned by a thing’s intentionally seeming different from what it is; and the degree of pleasure depends on the degree of difference and the perfection of the resemblance, not on the nature of the thing resembled.” But despite himself, Ruskin’s derision actually opens up an interesting space from which to think anew about trompe l’oeil—that in order to have an effect on the viewer, the illusion must ultimately fail, must be recognized as “different from what it is.” We will return to this idea later.
Despite drawing explicitly from Modernist design, the space of the screen I am looking at conjures a deeply ambiguous pictorial space that is far closer to the hallucinatory fascination of trompe l’oeil than it is to the frank essentialism of Modernist painting. All the hallmarks of trompe l’oeil are here—illusory textures, subtle plays of light and shadow, and an indeterminate shallowness that keeps our eye oscillating between looking at and through the screen. And though the makers of the screen, Apple Inc., would like us to believe that theirs is a rationalist universe, they are surely in the business of capturing our attention, keeping our eyes glued to the screen, not in awakening us from our slumbers.
The stark opposition I’ve drawn between Renaissance depth and Modernist flatness obscures a deeper affinity between these two paradigms—their assumptions about the nature of space itself. As I mentioned above, in order for the Renaissance painters to create coherent perspectival illusions of parallel lines converging to a single vanishing point, they had to imagine space as a mathematically consistent, abstract, homogenous totality. In other words, in order to represent architecture spatially, they had to think of space architecturally—as an infinite grid of flat planes.
As Modernist painting developed, it became ever more geometric to the point where the (flat) grid became its emblem, and Modernist architecture not only continues but dramatically intensifies the idea of space as an infinite grid of flat planes. High Modernist buildings, generally speaking, are premised on a grid-like structure, and the grid is the essence of High Modernist urban planning. If the painter-mathematicians of the Renaissance gave us the theory of space as an infinite grid of flat planes, it was the Modernists who made it into a global reality.
This vision of space is fundamentally imagistic. In imagining space as an infinite grid, architecture and painting—or space and image—became thoroughly entangled, as both are essentially planar. Certain Modernist movements made this entanglement explicit with radical designs in which paintings no longer hang on the walls of buildings, but are the walls of buildings. The Dutch avant-garde movement De Stijl saw architects and painters collaborating on edifices and interiors in which painterly space is woven into architectural space to the point where it’s hard to distinguish one from the other.
The digitization of space today has only deepened the entanglement of space and image. The Renaissance artists, despite their dramatic innovations, were still using the same means as Euclid to map space: geometry. René Descartes, however, made the leap into true mathematization of space by translating this geometry into algebraic formulas. In his Cartesian coordinate system, space—imagined as that same abstract, homogeneous totality—could be written as mathematical code. This coordinate system, translated into computer code, is the basis of most computer programs that model space, such as 3-D modeling software and video games. This link draws a thread directly from Renaissance painting through Modernist architecture that was premised on Cartesian space to the computer screens of today. And the strange space of the computer game—that convincing pseudo-space of flat images and illusory textures—might also help us appreciate the peculiarity of our own spatial paradigm.
What is our paradigm today? Though the production of new -isms can obscure the real processes of history, pronouncing aesthetic ruptures that hide structural continuity, they can also help us orient ourselves within the ultra-complexity of epochs. The scramble for a Post-Postmodernism has led to an oversupply of potential candidates for our time, but there is one that touches on the pervasive sense that things today aren’t quite what they seem (the unfortunate Trumpism “fake news” comes to mind). Pseudomodernism is a periodization that finds us living within an unholy matrimony of Modernist abstraction and the Postmodernist theatricality—or even cynicism—that followed it, in which the planar, rectilinear space sketched out above finds its imagistic qualities pushed to an extreme.
Pseudomodern architecture is all around us, though we might not notice it. It is those omnipresent office blocks, “luxury” apartments, new student accommodation buildings, and retail outlets that ape the clean lines and abstraction of Modernist buildings, while being everywhere clad in trompe l’oeil deceptions. These buildings might appear “rational,” with their vestigial grids and apparent lack of ornament, but the grids are warped by the whims of computer-aided design and often function poorly for their inhabitants, while the solid materials of Modernist architecture melt into cheap, though sophisticated, imitations—béton brut becomes concrete-effect cladding. “Pseudomodernism,” the architectural critic Owen Hatherley tells us, is “a modernism of concealment, a stylistic shell left after all the original social and moral ideas have been stripped out.”
The clean, open interiors of these buildings are descried as “minimalist,” but here again a twentieth-century aesthetic movement has been emptied of its critical force, leaving a stylistic shell of printed laminate illusions of wood and slate that cover over flimsy and toxic chipboard carcasses. If the space of the screen collapses Modernist industrial design with the tricks of trompe l’oeil panel painting, then the Pseudomodern interior design exemplified by Airbnb and IKEA is the strange meeting of Minimalist sculpture and trompe l’oeil fresco. Walking into Pret a Manger, I am struck not only by the infinite reproducibility of a style of interior that draws from the raw New York lofts inhabited by Minimalist artists in the 1970s but that its signature exposed brick is often in fact sheets of vacuum-formed plastic.
If we widen our scope, we see that Pseudomodern illusions mask not only the structures of buildings but their underlying hegemonic power structures as well. To return once more to the screen I am looking at, the maker of it, Apple Inc., might stand as a paradigmatic Pseudomodern company. Its products draw expressly from Modern, functionalist design (famously that of Dieter Rams), and its stores appear to have eliminated the barriers between consumer, staff, and product. Indeed, Apple’s flagship store on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue is a seemingly empty glass box, whose only purpose is to hold that ubiquitous glowing logo high above us. But like a Mac’s smooth surface hides its inner workings, which are a closed system designed to keep the user out, the transparent retail experience masks the opacity of the company’s practices. One of the major factories that makes Apple products, Foxconn, in Shenzhen, China, is among the most secretive in the world yet infamous for its punishing conditions and high laborer suicide rate.
Pseudomodernism, despite its rationalist look, is the outward face of a political paradigm that does not rationalize the distribution of resources fairly but rather masks inequalities behind thin veneers. We might, with great sadness, point to the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire in West London as a recent disaster of Pseudomodern “regeneration.” The block was an innovative piece of Brutalist social housing designed in the 1960s that, despite being structurally sound, received a new skin of aluminum composite cladding in 2015. The cladding—designed, at least in part, to “improve the overall appearance” of a tower that stands in one of the richest neighborhoods of the UK—was a flat image of the Modernist structure beneath it, turning its béton brut to a grid of smooth and inoffensive gray panels, presumably aimed to make the building—which housed many low-income families—more palatable to the wealthy inhabitants of West London. The air gap between the Modernist structure and its new combustible Pseudomodern skin acted like a chimney when a fire started from a fridge-freezer on the fourth floor on June 14, 2017, causing the rapid spread of the blaze, which killed seventy-two people.
For Hatherley, Pseudomodernism is the marker of a time “driven by exclusivity, tourism, and the politics of ‘aspiration.’” For Kirby, Pseudomodernism is a deep structural shift in society, a change in our very experience of reality in which technological sophistication and the commodification of everything, as exemplified by social media, have produced an ultra-individuated populous whose typical emotional states oscillate between feelings of extreme empowerment and fatalistic anxiety. “In place of the neurosis of modernism and the narcissism of postmodernism,” he writes, “pseudo-modernism takes the world away by creating a new weightless nowhere.” How does it take the world away? By simultaneously fascinating us with images of space and dissolving space with images.
Painter of Pseudomodern Life
The illusions that surround us onscreen and in urban spaces today are designed to capture and divert our attention, to simulate and dissimulate, to offer us not agency but fantasy, not knowledge but desire. Nonetheless, looking from a more psychoanalytic position we might see that trompe l’oeil—especially trompe l’oeil painting—can show us things, can offer a strange kind of knowledge that more “truthful” images can’t. From this angle, desire is not simply an effect of seeing but an active part of looking.
To return to John Ruskin, his charge against trompe l’oeil painting is that its “simple” pleasure is drawn not only from the convincing mimicry, but from the failure of the illusion—the aha! moment when we realize the image is not what we thought it was. The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan agrees with Ruskin: “What is it that attracts and satisfies us in trompe l’oeil? […] At the moment when, by a mere shift of our gaze, we are able to realize that the representation does not move with the gaze and that it is merely a trompe l’oeil.” Lacan, however, does not see those pleasures as simple, but as revealing complex truths—and true complexes.
Trompe l’oeil splits us in two—into the viewer who is fooled and the one who is not. For a moment we see ourselves seeing, and sense that we are active, if unconsciously, in that seeing. We glimpse our ability to project our desires onto the world, to see in it what we want to see. Trompe l’oeil is like a visual Freudian slip, a mistake that reveals our unconscious desire, the deepest subjective truth. There is a difference, though, in the kinds of deception—unlike the sophisticated illusions surrounding us today, trompe l’oeil painting offers up its own failure to scrutiny.
My own paintings are a case in point. They appear abstract at first glance, Modernist even. Each canvas is a simple, geometric composition in vivid, clashing colors. On closer inspection there appears to be some depth and volume—a thick frame surrounding a bright, cloudy interior space. But it’s a trompe l’oeil. The bright, cloudy interior draws the eye into a hazy depth beyond the surface of the canvas. And yet the pictorial space is contradictory—the light that appears to fall across the illusory frame also seems to cast a little shadow onto the clouds, rendering that apparent depth paradoxically shallow.
In using the old, thick stuff of paint to imitate drop shadows and other intangible digital deceptions of the screen, I intend—unlike the screen—not only to deceive but to offer up the failure of my deceptions, and allow some small space for reflection on how we (mis)perceive the surfaces of our world. My canvas paintings focus on the illusory space of images, while my painted installations explore how images—in the form of large-scale wall and ceiling paintings—put pressure on space.
My “praise” for drop shadows is an echo of Jun’ichiro¯ Tanizaki’s 1933 essay “In Praise of Shadows,” an impassioned lament against the Westernization—the blanket lighting, rationalization, and commodification—of space, that leaves no room for a more enigmatic, subjective relationship with our surroundings. Almost a century later, that Westernization is a global enlightenment, and with Google in the process of 3-D scanning the entire surface of the earth, Tanizaki’s shadows are ever harder to find. Those little simulations, those relics of shadows that we are left with—the drop shadows that I am looking at on the screen as I write this—are hardly worthy of praise in the same way. But in focusing our gaze at them, rather than looking through them, we might catch a glimpse of ourselves looking back—and perhaps even begin to look beyond them.
Central image: Christopher Page, installation view of The Four Seasons, 2019. Photo by Zachary Balber. Courtesy of the artist and Bill Brady, Miami.