WORDS Margaret F.M. Walker
Puzzles and puns abound in the work of Michael Theise, whose stunning trompe l’oeil paintings are on view at Haynes Galleries all summer. Trompe l’oeil has a long tradition in the history of art; its name translates to “deceive the eye,” and these works of art are known for their optical illusions induced by hyperrealism. These amusing compositions include worn antiques, playing cards and other games, postcards, and money. Theise arranges them to keep the eye moving and questioning whether any part might be collaged materials rather than paint. Theise studied painting under Ken Davies, a master of this tricky tradition. Of this fooling style, Theise says, “I couldn’t get my head around it.” Though he tried to emulate Davies in school, it took many more years of practice, mostly painting for the fish and wildlife service, before he began to develop the skill to be truly successful in trompe l’oeil.
These compositions, while almost photographic in their precision, are concertedly developed by the artist’s eye, usually to create a challenge to himself as much as to the viewer. Free Fruit features a postcard taped to a worn wooden board behind a pane of broken glass. A “handwritten” placard is tucked behind it. In Boom or Bust, the classic board game is covered with a nickel and bills in large denominations, leading us to think less about the contents of the box as the ideas within the game. Key Notes is a diminutive painting featuring several dollar bills tacked to an old portion of a cabinet and a key hanging off a nearby peg. Theise finds the objects he paints in various sources—several come from hawking eBay and frequenting coin shows, but others are lent to him by collectors. The titles typically come at the end of the creative process, reinforcing in words the visual puns embedded in the paintings. Vague storylines and jokes within these works keep viewers’ eyes moving around the composition. We look for the connections in addition to seeking intentional flaws and puzzling out whether the piece of tape is truly made of paint. The illusion sometimes even extends to the framing. I often wondered if the dark gap of a shadowbox frame might in fact be a painted border.
A great number of Theise’s paintings feature money. Conceptually, it is ideal for artwork about irony. We often forget that money is more than tender—it is art, an etching to be exact. Its value as art with the designs denoting currency is far greater than its value as paper. Furthermore, he has found that money makes people stop and look. It is the hook that catches the attention of the passerby, wondering if it might just be up for grabs. This works, though, only because of his skill. Money is one of the most difficult objects to paint in a realistic manner, in part because we see it every day, and it is through this more than the other elements that we can observe Theise’s mastery of his craft. Theise pointed out that while it presents a great challenge, its flatness is less ideal for the genre. Thus, as in Always Lucky and Money Has Wings, he often folds, stacks, and wrinkles the bills within a composition.
The faces on American banknotes are a way to incorporate the human figure into an otherwise object-focused genre of painting. Theise also does this by incorporating postcards of paintings by other artists such as John Singer Sargent and James A. McNeill Whistler. These more-impressionist styles create yet another challenge of imitation—this time by the need to loosen his brushstrokes. More than anything, he finds these works to be learning experiences, in which he puzzles out the procedures of masters in different styles. It is not only those painters of the human figure he will emulate, though, but also the landscapes of Charles Platt and the chaotic abstraction of Jackson Pollock.
When viewing the exhibit at Haynes, I noticed that the color scheme among the paintings was very sympathetic. Theise admits he gravitates to earth tones, which has in part been a gradual move. His early work is very dark, relying heavily on contrast to make the optical illusions pop. The colors have lightened as his toolbox for creating illusions using texture, value, and shape in addition to contrast have improved. It is this use of texture that is truly impressive— from the pockmarked dartboard, to the soft folds of a worn bill, to the shiny modernism of a plastic squirt gun against wood with visible grain and peeling paint. Theise lives by the philosophy that his artistic ability, while sharpened by hard work, is a gift to be embraced. All those who find time to spend with his work will have to agree that these small, painted puzzles are a gift to us as well.
An exhibit of Michael Theise’s work is on view at Haynes Galleries through September 8. For more information, please visit www.haynesgalleries.com.