Exploring the term trompe l’oeil, a researcher discovers historical precedents. One instance, supplied by the Royal Academy of Arts in London, recounts the earliest example involving Zeuxis and Parrhasius, two artists in ancient Greece. They vied with each other over who could best replicate reality. Zeuxis painted grapes so exceptional that birds pecked at them; Parrhasius outdid the grapes by painting a curtain so real that his colleague tried to draw it aside. Another concerns Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702–1789), a Swiss portraitist who was known as “the painter of truth.” His pastel and oil portraits were in demand internationally despite his refusal to flatter or embellish his sitters. His portrayal of unvarnished truth was a natural progression to his handful of trompe l’oeil works.
Liotard’s painting, titled Trompe l’Oeil, shown in London in 1773, is now in The Frick Collection in New York City. The small painting epitomizes what the artist called deceptio visus (visual deception), a type of rendition that makes you examine a painting’s surface to confirm that it’s two dimensional. Trompe l’Oeil depicts plaster reliefs and drawings hanging on or stuck with sealing wax to a pine panel. The truth of these objects is, in fact, an illusion.
If we assume that Liotard engaged in a little craft by carving and/or molding the reliefs before painting them, he has a connection to today’s ceramics. Practitioners who use trompe l’oeil (French for “deceive the eye”) may copy objects normally made in another material—clothing, metal, food, organic material—while others make ceramics that truly deceive the viewer. This article focuses on Mitchell Spain, Shalene Valenzuela, and Michael Schwegmann, whose portfolios range from outright trickery to symbolic use of the style.
The Real Thing
Mitchell Spain is of the fourth generation of Spains to live on the family farm in rural Iowa. Being in one place over a length of time results in the accumulation of stuff that can no longer be recycled or has exceeded its functional life: broken tools, empty containers, rusty mechanical parts. While some might see this as junk, Spain regards it as family heritage, the bones of American agriculture, evidence of the passage of time, and industrial design history. When he studied ceramics at the University of Iowa (UI), completing his BFA in 2012, he used clay to honor what he found on the farm. His portfolio included a broken shovel handle mended with black tape, rendered in stoneware; rusty D-size Energizer batteries made of porcelain; a weathered hand saw with wooden handle, also made of stoneware; and the pièce de résistance, a stoneware wagon-wheel teapot. All items were actual size.
The woodgrain and rust of the tools certainly deceive the eye, compounded, in the case of the shovel and teapot, with splintered ends of timber. The teapot had several iterations, each with a faux-oxidized wheel hub and a segment of ersatz metal rim. During his years at UI, the ceramics department purchased a decal printer, whereby the possibility for a new realm of detritus reproduction occurred to Spain. The farm had many empty tins that formerly contained toxic and non-toxic products like motor and machine oil, fly spray, lighter fluid, spices, and beverages. He was inspired by actual tins but to avoid contamination from possible residue, he used the Internet to source the graphic art from bygone Americana. The university’s purchase of the decal printer proved influential to the direction of Spain’s future career.
The portfolio that arose from his MFA studies at the University of Kansas included perfection of ceramic threading. Spain executed a number of working nut-and-bolt sets in porcelain that were rust coated and decorated as if they were formerly covered with Delft-motif enamel. He developed a molding technique (https://mitchellspainceramics.shop/collections/apparel/products/threaded-a-guide-to-creating-ceramic-threads) that ensured the nut and bolt fit together and transferred the technique to the screw-top lids of his replica tins. The latter have become his bread-and-butter production, sold primarily through his website as well as Instagram.
This aspect of Spain’s work is the most deceptive of the three trompe l’oeil artists. The screw-top tins look like they’ve just been unearthed from an aging dumping ground. The labels are weathered, with areas missing; the rust looks and feels as you would expect, thanks to a glaze he developed at UI and continues to modify; and, most startling of all, the noise of a cap being unscrewed is uncannily like metal on metal. The only element missing from these trompe l’oeil objects is the fumes of Mopar Tar & Road Oil Remover or Cactus Polish Cleaner once the cap, complete with a silicone seal, is set aside. The replica tins are used as flasks for olive oil, cologne, or Jack Daniels, nicer scents to tickle the olfactory nerves.
Mitchell Spain’s ceramics appeal primarily for nostalgic reasons. Shalene Valenzuela’s sculptures also have nostalgic appeal, although her take on nostalgia requires more from the viewer. Engagement with the form of the object as well as what’s on its surface is necessary, and while an item’s title might give a hint about its narrative, the audience contributes to the story as well.
Valenzuela studied ceramics as an undergraduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, where Richard Shaw, the master of trompe l’oeil ceramics, was her mentor. She followed in his footsteps, adopting the style and learning from Shaw’s knowledge of mold making, which now accounts for the construction of most of Valenzuela’s portfolio. However, instead of simply duplicating the real world in clay, she recognized the presence of another dimension for her drawing and painting skills. By using the surface of the ceramic object as a canvas, she could “create a dialog between what is happening on the surface in two dimensions and the object itself.” As a graduate student at the California College of Arts and Crafts, Valenzuela began her storytelling with domestic objects like rolling pins, plates, and pot holders and moved into small appliances normally associated with women’s domestic activities: blenders, irons, toasters, and sewing machines.
The appliances start out with the real thing from ages past. Each item, whose procurement might necessitate browsing at garage sales and charity shops, is deconstructed in order to understand the elements and their sequence so that the piece can be reconstructed in slip-cast clay. A vacuum cleaner, for instance, might have four panels for the body as well as molds for the hose, wand, and floor brush. A handle, knobs, clips, and logo, all with detailing like the original, make the clay vacuum more realistic. As the vacuum is produced, Shalene imagines a narrative appropriate to the appliance, which is roughly sketched onto the bisque-fired sculpture. The narratives are about women and the issues they talked about in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. The style of the graphics comes from those decades by interpretation of advertisements, illustrations, and photos from popular magazines such as Woman’s Day and Ladies’ Home Journal.
In Suck It Up: Ears Are Burning, Valenzuela notes that a vacuum cleaner sucks up the dirt that eventually must be dealt with. Thus, illustrated on one side of this vacuum (each iteration tells a different narrative) are two women who look at the viewer, perhaps assessing her for gossip or dirt; on the other, dirt is being shared between two other figures. For Telephone: Yellow Tangle, Valenzuela highlights communication in both two and three dimensions. The women’s expressions imply gossip being relayed. There is also reference to the game of telephone, where the original message becomes distorted or manipulated as it is passed on. The bees are pollinating messages and the tangled phone cord brings discord into the piece. The allure of Valenzuela’s appliances is as much for their trompe l’oeil replication as their feminist subjects, many of which are topical.
Art of Deception
As an indication of the deception of trompe l’oeil, Michael Schwegmann recounts an experience while attending a craft fair in Iowa. His booth contained his signature items: paint cans and brushes, wrenches, a shovel. A rough-looking tradesman passed by, launching a stream of vitriol about the insolence of displaying trash at such an event. Schwegmann spoke to him, asking “Hey man, what’s going on?” He explains that the visitor “was in my face, really upset. I showed him they were ceramic. I had a big valve and took it apart and showed him it was all made of ceramic. He said, ‘What? I thought this was all metal.’” The intervention, diffusing what could have been an ugly scene, initiated a conversation that ended with Schwegmann being declared “cool” by the visitor and his friends.
This anecdote symbolizes several issues. First, the effectiveness of trompe l’oeil to fool some of the people some of the time continues to prevail despite consumers supposedly being visually savvy. Secondly, it points out the craftsperson’s role in educating the public about material, process, and intent. And third, as Schwegmann observed in Iowa, a maker’s subject matter will resonate with an audience in unexpected ways, requiring self-reflection to ensure you are prepared for diverse reactions. Schwegmann says that for him, the aha moment of appreciating the last issue came many years into his career.
Schwegmann went to college in 1993, believing that he would graduate with a qualification in something like business. His studies required an internship. He decided to work with a potter for a year in Michigan and, discovering that he enjoyed the practice, started to show functional and decorative work in a gallery in addition to helping his employer. A ceramics hobbyist saw the gallery wares and offered to sell Schwegmann a ceramics studio in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. He agreed and earned his living as a professional potter for five years before getting a BFA in ceramics at the local university.
Schwegmann had mastered making pots, but felt no personal connection to them. He was seeking an individual style and, as a joke, made a ceramic paint can. The result was a winner, but he did not recognize what he had created until he showed the cans at a craft show and a customer said “this looks like grandpa’s garage.” This comment prompted him to inspect the garage for other designs, resulting in a portfolio that honors labor, working with the hands, and industrial progress, all of which he describes as big ideas. His father was a carpenter, so Schwegmann grew up around tools, making and fixing things. “They were symbols of myself and the people I know and love.” He had discovered a meaningful genre and has concentrated on it for about ten years. The works are thrown, handbuilt and more recently, with multiples like wrenches, he makes a mold then slip casts a series of 40 or 50.
Unlike Spain and Valenzuela’s work, some of Schwegmann’s ceramics are overtly political. He’s aware that he might offend some customers with his flags, military helmets, guns, and ball-and-chain sculptures and thereby lose sales. However, he says that as an American citizen he’s responsible for making change and further explains, “I don’t tell people what to think, just to think.”
The tradition of art provoking thinking, particularly by means of trompe l’oeil, is a rich and varied one beginning in ancient Greece and continuing to thrive today, as exemplified in the work of Mitchell Spain, Shalene Valenzuela, and Michael Schwegmann.
the author D Wood has a PhD in design studies and is an independent craft scholar whose artist profiles and exhibition reviews have appeared in an international roster of art and design publications.