Trompe l’œil – When it Feels Blissful to be Fooled

An Interview with Sharon Moody

When a series of Sharon Moody’s artworks were exhibited earlier this year it earned critical acclaim, but not without creating quite a bit of clamour, ironically for the same reason. The series was dedicated to the Classic Comic Books and their rolled, folded and yellowed pages. The work was too perfect to have gone unnoticed. For the same reason, it reignited an old controversy about the ethos of such photorealistic depiction of comic books with their original characters and storylines without an explicit mentioning of the names of the comic artists. Experienced connoisseurs of art may have had a feeling of déjà vu here. Years ago none other than Roy Lichtenstein found himself confronting such questions when he exhibited Whaam! in 1963. Interestingly, many of today’s critics like comparing Sharon Moody’s art to that of Lichtenstein’s, notwithstanding the fact that the latter was a representative of pop art done at a different time and place.

Sharon Moody was born in Florida, but spent much of her time in North Carolina until she completed her BFA from Appalachian State University, Boone, NC in 1973. The ensuing years were marked by her continued explorations in the world of art, further studies, including an MFA degree from George Washington University, Washington DC, and being a teacher and mentor to young talents. In between, she developed a rich body of work that is permeated by the colours of her own thoughts and sensibilities. She is a great admirer of William Harnett and John F Peto’s paintings, artists who kindled the passions for trompe l’œil on the other side of the Atlantic. Her own handling of optical illusion on canvas could be considered an homage to these two great artists. It is her ingenuity that leads her to imbibe the essence of photorealism in the Classic Comic Books without diluting the veritable charm of trompe l’œil. The former assists her to capture the exceptionally minute details of a chocolate bar, a pair of tennis racquets or a one dollar bill while the latter induces the viewer into a forced perspective on a two dimensional plain. It might be true that ‘reality’ is nothing but a ‘persistent illusion’, but in this case the illusion turns out to be a rather gratifying one.

Can you please tell us how life has been for young Sharon and the influences of her immediate environment upon her?

I’m assuming you mean childhood experiences. I was born in Florida and lived there for 10 years; even then I drew a lot and made things. After my family moved to North Carolina, I kept drawing – childish drawings of horses, dancers, and portraits of friends. Once I decided to make a portrait of my dad from a family photo. I took a jar of ink from my mom’s desk, and with a saucer of water and a brush, made an ink painting. No one showed me how to mix water and ink in varying amounts to make different values. I thought I had invented ink wash. And photorealism! We visited the art museum in Raleigh to see the collection, and also visited the museums in Washington DC on summer vacation. As I went through school, the teachers told my mom every year that her daughter was ‘really good at art’. I was conscripted to decorate the boards all the time. They’d staple white paper up, give me a box of crayons, and say, ‘make a Christmas scene’. Much later, in high school, the art teacher became very insistent that I should study art in college and I did.

When did you first decide to pursue a career in art and allied fields? How do you consider your unique voice as an artist was nurtured and supported by your formal education, if at all?

I always knew that art was my path. I got a BA in Fine Art in college, but didn’t get an MFA immediately – it wasn’t as prevalent then – although I did it later. The type of undergraduate degree I got was not an education degree, and at the time I didn’t want to teach. My assumption was that I would find odd jobs to survive, and make art, and starve in a garret, which was my naïve and romanticized view of artists’ bohemian lives. My undergraduate degree was a specialisation in what was then called Graphics, so my coursework was mostly in drawing, etching, lithography, silkscreen and watercolour – anything on paper. It was my strength at the time (drawing) and I still believe drawing skills are fundamental to the visual arts. Of course all this was complicated by my gender. All my professors were men. The vast majority of the art students were women. I was reading second wave feminist writers, and it was a time of social change. But the art history survey books had no women in them at all, so there was a subliminal message that we could study art, but not actually be artists. Although the colleges accepted many young women who majored in art, there was no real career route for them after finishing college. We were on our own in a culture that was struggling with changing roles for women, in a profession that was exceedingly difficult and also rapidly changing – it seemed that there was a new ‘ism’ every year. Somehow, I didn’t worry.

You were involved in an extensive study of paintings of master painters at the National Gallery. How do you feel that phase contributed in the development of the artist in you? Is there any point of reference for you in the work of past masters which you tend to consult often, consciously or subconsciously?

That occurred years later when I was a graduate student. The primary donor and original philanthropist behind the National Gallery of Art, Andrew Mellon, had the idea to start a copyist program modelled on the one at the Louvre that had been so beneficial to young artists in France. I think he insisted on it in his bequest. My advisor Arthur Smith suggested I apply; with a portfolio and references, one can obtain a permit to copy one day per week. They provide easels and dropcloths. I was concentrating on still life in my work, so I selected still lives to copy. The program only operates in the West Wing of the Gallery, which houses paintings through about 1900. I worked on a number of things; the originals had all been developed on a primed canvas with an imprimatura, then a monochromatic underpainting, and subsequent layers of colour, in other words, following traditional techniques.

Yet there were enormous differences in paint application between, for example, Chardin and James Peale. It was an eye – opener for me. One of the things I was struggling with was how ‘painterly’ to be. I had been naturally drawn to more precise work while working on my own in the years between college and graduate school, which also included marriage, parenthood, jobs, painting, and exhibitions. Then when I was back in the graduate school I was encouraged to work more loosely. Comparing the techniques of those master painters while in the copyist program helped me to learn not just the structure of the paintings but differing techniques, and determine which was more natural for me. Eventually, I did gravitate towards a more precisionist approach. Additionally, the graduate program at George Washington University was, at that time, very focused on developing solid technical skills in painters, which was exactly what I needed. My experience with the copyist program at the NGA was an extension of that. I was so fortunate.

Two 19th century artists who inspire me, William Harnett and John Peto, were associated with a resurgence of trompe l’œil painting in the US. While I was living in NJ in the 80s, the National Gallery of Art organized an exhibition with about 60 paintings by Peto, including a number of works from their own holdings; I travelled down to DC especially to see it. The Gallery also owns two paintings by Harnett, and mounted a survey of his work with about 50 additional borrowed works from the early nineties, after we had moved back to the DC area. Then in 2002, the Gallery organised a blockbuster exhibition of trompe l’œil works of artists from about last five hundred years. It was a popular, crowd–pleasing exhibition. These three exhibitions influenced me greatly. So the National Gallery has been a very rich source of inspiration for me regarding the history and practice of trompe l’œil painting in particular, and the still life tradition in general.

Super Wonder, Painting by Sharon Moody

Like ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’ small everyday objects become central characters of your painting. What do you make out of your role as someone giving ‘life’ to oft ignored objects of our daily existence? At any point of time during creation do you feel blissfully happy and one with your work?

I have spent a lot of time looking at art. Still lives can be classified in many ways, but one way of that might be by the choice of subject matter. For example, during the Dutch Golden Age it was fashionable to paint valuable objects – the economy was booming due to the shipping industry, and the paintings of luxury items and exotic curiosities were popular among the art collectors. Other painters at different times chose more ordinary objects, but sometimes imbued them with almost an otherworldly aura (I’m thinking of Chardin again, and a contemporary painter, Roberto Bernardi). So those are some of the things still life painters think about.

But whether the objects are precious or ordinary, still life painters tend to be people who arrange those objects to create a pleasing group of shapes, colours and textures. They tend to be painters who are more interested in formal issues, by which I mean design elements and principles. Still life usually doesn’t have the narrative freight that you would find in figurative compositions, so they’re ideal for painters who want to experiment with compositional strategies (such as Braque and Picasso’s early cubist works). That is what appeals to me, beyond the intrinsic value of the objects themselves. Also, the act of choosing and arranging and representing the objects does mean that the painter is insisting on their importance – inviting the viewer to look at them aesthetically rather than in an identifying, classifying way. ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’ is made up of separate, ordinary objects, but the arrangement of a pleasing whole was my main concern. I wouldn’t say that comic books, the subject of my current work, are ‘oft ignored objects’ though. Serious collectors of back issues abound; blockbuster films are made featuring the characters; conventions for fans are very well attended.

The illusory world of comic strips provides brief escape from the real world to everyone irrespective of one’s age. What inspired you to explore this fantastic world of comic magazines? How do you consider trompe l’œil’s capability of creating a utopia to be a triumph of this age old art form?

My current paintings of silver age comic books represents images that we are already so familiar with, from their original purpose as books for kids, to their worldwide popularity as symbols of American popular culture and especially entertainment, and to their relationship with mid – twentieth century pop art that the viewer is also aware of. So they do have layers of meaning to begin with. The series is the culmination of a lot of my ideas and directions over a period of years. My interest in trompe l’œil, which was kindled in the 80s, kept recurring in my work. You might think of it as obsessively taking still life and realism to the nth degree. Why not make a still life look ‘really’ real? What would you do? Well, make it life size. Make it look three – dimensional. Make it look convincing. I made a few trompe l’œil paintings that were essentially feminine (not particularly feminist) versions of the American masters Harnett and Peto. For example, I painted gardening paraphernalia hanging on the wall instead of hunting gear. I was also working on a series of still life paintings of games and toys. While I was looking for studio props for that series I came across a vintage comic and did a trompe l’œil painting of it. It resonated with all the different threads and preferences in my work and life – a minimalist presentation, references to childhood reading and to pop. The very stuff that they are made of, printed paper, also dovetails with the trompe l’œil tradition. All sorts of paper objects, like drawings, etchings, visiting cards, letters, stamps, posters, etc. have been pressed into service over the centuries as subjects for the spatially shallow trompe l’œil style. I thought that comic books were a perfect subject for a contemporary approach to the practice of trompe l’œil.

For a long period of time you are actively engaged in grooming young talent. Do you think having been involved in teaching helped you in becoming a more complete artist and human being? Have you seen any shift in the students’ approach towards art or practising of the craft?

Yes, I have been teaching off and on since the late 80s. Initially I taught mostly drawing at a few different places. I’ve been at Georgetown University since 1998, teaching drawing, design, painting, materials and methods over the years. The last is the most important to me. I studied materials and methods in graduate school and even after reading art history for many years I had not completely understood the history of painting until taking that class. We reconstructed a number of paintings from the history of art using authentic materials and techniques. Until you do this yourself, you do not understand why paintings look the way they do. It is not just a matter of changing tastes or social developments or advances in theory it is a matter of the physical characteristics and limitations of the materials available and the technology of the time. It was an epiphany for me. At Georgetown, I was given the opportunity to develop a similar course. It was necessarily a little truncated for the undergraduates, but we cover the major developments and transitions in the Western painting tradition. It’s satisfying to pass on such important information. The students I work with are amazing. They soak up everything and are so hard – working. They are not all art majors and not all of them would become artists. But what they learn will enhance their understanding of their culture. I only teach one class per semester now, but still find it rewarding.

To involve the audience, painters have to find a way to make what they see in and feel about the subject visible to others. What I’ve always been most interested in is space, and creating an illusion of three – dimensionality.

To involve your audience in your work what elements do you focus on for depicting subjects as varied as a bunch of grapes or rackets and shuttlecocks?

I think what I choose to depict is pretty universal. Foodstuffs, vessels, and so on are the conventional subject matter in still life. And there are a number of painters working with children’s toys in some form. But to involve the audience, painters have to find a way to make what they see in and feel about the subject visible to others. What I’ve always been most interested in is space, and creating an illusion of three – dimensionality. Trompe l’œil painters have different ways to do this; one way involves an illusionistic niche, with objects appearing to recede behind the picture plane. Another way is the illusion of a rack, or board, with the objects projecting outward in front of the picture plane into the viewers’ space. The latter is the tack I’ve taken with the comic book series. That approach can arrest attention and pull the viewer into the space of the painting. Beyond the spatial considerations are the countless decisions one makes regarding tiny adjustments in colour and value to help the viewer see the beauty that you see. In my current series there are also decisions to be made regarding how weathered and old the comic should look, to convey its age and history. By that I mean it is a specific book, owned and read and kept and treasured, with little wrinkles or tiny tears that show its use. I also show it in mid – read, because I hope to remind the audience of that experience.

How important a part light (or the lack of it) plays in bringing forth the essence of the moment in a painting?

For the type of painting that I do, light is everything. Trompe l’œil paintings depend on a convincing representation of how light falls across objects and how shadows are cast to create their effects. It isn’t our eyes that ‘see’ paintings but our minds. Painters who are working ‘illusionistically’ are using trickery to fool the viewer’s brains into thinking that they are looking at objects with mass and volume, when they are really just seeing coloured pigments bound in oil, spread with a brush onto a flat surface.

How would you define success? If you are requested to paint your life’s journey on canvas what form would it take?

Of course there is the personal satisfaction of being completely immersed in making art. Probably many painters would also define success as the ability to make art every day and have it find an audience that understood and appreciated what the painter was expressing. In practical terms, that would include finding collectors for the work, so the painter could continue to buy supplies and make more art. I have been very fortunate, as the gallery that represents my work, Bernarducci Meisel Gallery in NY, has a long tradition of supporting and promoting the artworks of realist painters. Louis Meisel coined the term photorealism and has written a number of books featuring the most significant practitioners of that style; his Soho gallery has been the ground zero for photorealism since the 70s. Frank Bernarducci’s expertise came from operating galleries in the East Village and the 57th Street gallery corridor. They are both committed to helping their artists find success.

Your second question is very large, and it would take a very large art work to answer it. I don’t know if any single art work can define a painter’s entire life’s journey, with the possible exception of Las Meninas by Velázquez.

Portrait of Sharon Moody

My Favourites

My favourite holiday destinations are cities – that’s where the museums are! Jane Austen is my favourite author. My favourite colour is white. Since I live in the DC area, the food I like most would have to be steamed blue crabs.

Find more of her work at Bernarducci Meisel Gallery

Image Courtesy: Sharon Moody & Bernarducci Meisel Gallery, NYC