David Hollowell’s over-sized illusionistic images of a Vermeer postcard and a torn scrap of yellowed newspaper with a toast by Herb Caen hark back to a tradition of trompe l’oeil (deceive the eye) painting that goes back to ancient Greece and Rome.
Legend has it that in ancient times there was a contest between two painters to see who was the better. Zeuxis (born 464 B.C.) painted a still life so convincing that birds flew down to peck at the grapes. His rival, Parrhasius, asked Zeuxis to judge one of his paintings that was behind a pair of tattered curtains. When Zeuxis tried to pull the curtains aside, he could not as they were part of Parrhasius’ painting, making Parrhasius the winner.
One is tempted to say that Hollowell, now retired from teaching at UC Davis, could give them a run for their money. Most, though not all, of his paintings and pastels at artspace1616 masterfully use trompe l’oeil techniques to create the optical illusion that the objects depicted exist in three dimensions. The show is eminently entertaining, keeping you guessing about what is real and what is not.
One of the most deceitful works on view is an oil on panel with words that seem to be made of peeling masking tape spelling out “Is This Painting,” calling up associations with Rene Magritte’s painting of a pipe whose title translates to “This Is Not a Pipe.”
In this case, the tape is not tape and the pushpins that secure the paper on the wall are not pushpins, but your fingers itch to pull the tape off and pluck out the pins. It’s an amazing illusion, as is a painting of a Smiley Face formed by a circle of red pushpins with blue pushpin eyes.
Likewise the Vermeer reproduction of “Girl With a Pearl Earring” and the newspaper fragment, seemingly pinned to the wall with giant pushpins, fool you, though their enormous size belies their realism. They are great fun, though, as is a giant pinup of World War II soldiers’ favorite pinup girl, Betty Grable, and a charming child’s drawing signed Adrienne.
Hollowell is less successful with paintings that include the human figure. “Character Shelf” with a series of figures assuming poses conveying various attitudes is interesting, but doesn’t quite work. “Adam and Eve,” featuring portraits of Hollowell and his wife, Terry, standing on shelves, casting an interplay of umbra and penumbra shadows, is better, but the addition of the title in tape below the figures seems gratuitous.
“Myth and Mystery,” which places a modern woman in a striped dress and shoes in front of a faint image of a saintly woman out of a painting by Piero della Francesco, is a powerful illusion, but on closer inspection incorporates an actual trick, which I will leave you to discover for yourself.
Quibbles aside, this is a terrific show by an artist so skilled you wonder why he isn’t rich and famous and living in New York. Is it yet another case of East Coast prejudice against California painters?
Sharing the space with Hollowell’s work are several sculptures made of cast cement, cast resin and steel by Tom Bills, who first met Hollowell when they were graduate students at Yale and later taught with him at UC Davis.
A former assistant to minimalist sculptor Richard Serra, Bills works on a smaller scale than Serra, presenting “Fern” and “Fiddle,” two tall and complex steel sculptures with warm, rusty finishes; several tablelike pieces that suggest Japanese sources and funerary functions; and a pair of small wall pieces in which enigmatic, shiny, silhouetted figures are embedded in corrugated panels of warm-toned cast concrete. The latter are displayed at the ends of a long, narrow white hallway that suggests a religious setting and gives the sculptures a feeling of holy relics.
It should be noted that there are also small displays of strong works by a pair of artists from China up for a limited time at the gallery. Yin Xiaofeng shows a group of small bronzes of Buddhist monks in a procession that suggests a pilgrimage and a pair of gouache drawings of piquant female figures. Wendy Zhang shows an assortment of wonderfully eccentric and quite elegant, small scale, geometric sculptures. You’ll have to hurry to see them as the show closes Sunday, June 5, but the Hollowell and Bills works will be up through Saturday, July 2.
David Hollowell and Tom Bills
Where: artspace1616, 1616 Del Paso Blvd., Sacramento
When: Through Saturday, July 2, noon-6 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays
Information: 916-849-1127; www.facebook.com/artspace1616