Trompe l’oeil: A French term that means to “deceive the eye.” Artists utilize this illusionistic technique to mislead the senses and effectively “blur the boundaries between real and represented.”[i]
Trompe l’oeil has a long rich history. Evidence of this technique can be found among the ruins of Pompeii and later, it was frequently incorporated in the frescos of the Italian Renaissance. In these early renderings this illusion brought three-dimensional depth to a two-dimensional surface. In the twentieth century trompe l’oeil saw a resurgence. Artists like Salvador Dali and René Magritte utilized this effect in their surrealistic paintings and beginning in the 1960s a group of American studio potters adopted this practice as well. Their trompe l’oeil work in clay is sometimes referred to as the Super-Object movement.[ii] Concentrated mostly on the West Coast, these potters placed emphasis on sculptural forms instead of traditional vessels, relied on a “layered mix of influences,” and were known for alluding to social issues or commenting on art history itself.”[iii]
The Kamm Collection contains numerous trompe l’oeil ceramic teapots including examples by David Furman, Paul Dresang, Gail Ritchie, Eric Serritella, and Robert Hudson. For the purposes of this blog post focus will be placed on three individuals represented in the collection: Marilyn Levine, Richard Blake Shaw, and Ah Leon.
Marilyn Levine (1935-2005)
Marilyn Levine was a master of trompe l’oeil. “[She] want[s] your visual sense to tell you something different than your tactile sense, and then experience the dilemma that that presents you with.”[iv]
Levine’s best-known creations were her hyper-realistic leather objects in clay. These works, which often focused on items such as shoes, bags, and jackets, exhibit a stunning attention to detail. In a painstaking and lengthy process, she carefully constructed stitching, folds, and seams as well as signs of wear.[v] For Levine, the scratches, scuff marks, and wrinkles told a story and gave her work a sense of history and humanity.
Levine was born in Canada and had a career in chemistry before turning to the arts.[vi] In 1969 she relocated to the United States to study under Peter Voulkos at the University of California, Berkeley.[vii] When Levine arrived in Berkeley, the Funk movement was going strong.[viii] She tried to emulate this style creating shoes and jackets “that were supposed to be funky.”[ix] Then, a friend shared his foundry boots with her. Levine said “…the toes were torn open, and you could see the steel, and they were all crusty with stuff spilled on them…It was at that point I realized what you could say with a pair of boots…This is the evidence of that person’s existence…”[x] It was a pivotal moment for Levine. She changed her approach and began creating trompe l’oeil leather objects.
In the 1990s Levine focused on cups like Zip Noir in the Kamm Collection. These small cups feature the worn leathery surfaces seen in her previous work. In this instance, however, special consideration is also given to the unzipped zipper that rests on the cup’s outer body. Zip Noir is a testament to the fact that no matter the size or subject matter, these leathered objects never stopped holding Levine’s attention. When Marilyn Levine died in 2005, she had been making variations of these designs for approximately thirty-five years.
Richard Blake Shaw (b. 1941)
Richard Blake Shaw has received widespread acclaim for his trompe l’oeil sculptures that combine “humor, irony, and elegance.”[xi] With his assemblages, figures, and still lifes, he recreates objects in clay from everyday life with staggering precision. Shaw appreciates the duplicity that is present in his trompe l’oeil work. In a 2006 interview he spoke about the magic of illusion and the shift of perception that can occur with his art. Shaw believes if “…things aren’t what they appear to be. It makes you look at things. It makes you have a new experience rather than the same old experience.”[xii]
Like Marilyn Levine, Shaw also had strong connections to California. He grew up in Hollywood in an artistic household and in the 1960s he attended the San Francisco Art Institute and the University of California, Davis.[xiii] Among his professors were the notable artists Ron Nagle, Jim Melchert, and Robert Hudson. [xiv] Early in Shaw’s career he began experimenting with trompe l’oeil and around 1970 he decided to just focus on clay. “[He] wanted to make everything out of clay. That was [his] own contest.”[xv] Shaw’s work has evolved and continues to do so. Frequently he will use hand-built, thrown, and slip cast elements as well as techniques he developed such as the application of overglaze transfer decals.[xvi]
Within the Kamm Collection there are four Shaw works: Saddleshoe Teapot, Black Pump Teapot, Hatchet Tea Set, and A Sunny Cameo for Tea. This whimsical group of trompe l’oeil ceramics captures the imagination. However, beyond the illusion, these compositions can also offer social commentary or perhaps tell a story. These are stories that reflect a person’s presence, absence, “taste, pastimes, intellectual pursuits, sins, habits (good and bad), obsessions or carelessness.”[xvii] The clues Shaw provides us with give his work a sense of mystery and leaves us longing for more.
Ah Leon (b. 1953)
Taiwanese artist Ah Leon has received international attention for his trompe l’oeil stoneware that skillfully mimics wood.[xviii] With these creations he combines his knowledge of ancient Chinese pottery with the freedom found in modern Western ceramics. Ah Leon is celebrated for his ability to not only capture the essence of wood and its texture, but also “its ‘life,’ its manner of growth, moments of stunting, experienced traumas, and accidental deformations…”[xix]
Ah Leon grew up on a rice farm, but instead of following in his family’s footsteps he enrolled at the National Academy of Arts in Taipei. After graduating in 1976, he spent four years apprenticing with master potters throughout Taiwan.[xx] This experience laid the “foundation of his career.”[xxi] In particular, as an apprentice, he gained greater respect for Yixing ceramic traditions that date back to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Yixing potters are known for their unglazed high-fired stoneware teapots made of a reddish-purple clay and their witty teapots that sometimes resemble vegetables, stalks of bamboo, or melons.
Throughout the 1980s Ah Leon created Yixing inspired wares and he even founded a “studio factory” that produced limited editions of his designs.[xxii] Then, in 1987 he traveled to the United States. Ah Leon’s trip was eye-opening. While Peter Voulkos “freed him to try art for ‘art sake,’” two other artists also had an impact[xxiii] For Ah Leon, Richard Notkin and Marilyn Levine were a “catalyst that awakened his interest in Yixing trompe l’oeil.”[xxiv] By the 1990s he had begun a series that mimicked tree trunks, branches, and railroad ties. These designs were developed from Ah Leon’s in-depth studies of bonsai and the characteristics of wood.
The Kamm Collection has two Ah Leon stoneware teapots from the 1990s: a very vertical Acacia Trunk Teapot and Horizontal Log Teapot. These works reveal this artist’s “technical virtuosity.”[xxv] While he continues to look to Yixing pots for inspiration, these weathered creations are more “contemporary and expressive.”[xxvi] Ah Leon calls these forms “sculpture with teapot features.”[xxvii] Since this series, he has continued to evolve as an artist. In more recent years Ah Leon’s large-scale installations have garnered widespread acclaim. In 1997 he completed his first installation called Bridge at the Smithsonian Institution’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC. This approximately sixty-six-foot-long stoneware sculpture of a decaying bridge was “the ultimate illusion of reality.”
Reality & Realism: The Ceramics Art of Ah Leon. Sacramento, CA: Crocker Art Museum, 2004.
Marilyn Levine Oral History. Archives of American Art. Nanette L. Laitman Documentation Project for Craft and Decorative Arts in America. Conducted by Glenn Adamson. 15 May 2002.
Marilyn Levine’s website.
Richard Blake Shaw’s website.
Richard Shaw: Four Decades of Ceramics. Sonoma County Museum, 2010.
2012 Regis Masters Lecture: Richard Shaw. Northern Clay Center.
Wible, David, ed. Beyond Yixing: The Ceramic Art of Ah Leon. Taipei, Taiwan: Purple Sands Publishers, 1998.
[i] Leah Ollman, “Around the Galleries: Using Clay to Blur the Lines of Reality,” Los Angeles Times, (30 July 2004), E29.
[ii] Garth Clark in Beyond Yixing: The Ceramic Art of Ah Leon describes Super-Object (1965-1980) as a movement that is closely connected to a movement in contemporary painting and sculpture called Photorealism/ Photo-Realism or Super-Realism. It emerged in the late 1960s on the “coattails of the Pop movement.” David Wible, ed., Beyond Yixing: The Ceramic Art of Ah Leon, (Taipei, Taiwan: Purple Sands Publishers, 1998), 77.
[iii] There were three main centers of Super-Object activity on the West Coast: Southern California, Northern California, and a Pacific Northwest group in Seattle. Wible, 77.
[iv] Oral History with Marilyn Levine, Archives of American Art, Nanette L. Laitman Documentation Project for Craft and Decorative Arts in America, Conducted by Glenn Adamson, 15 May 2002. [v] In order to create her leather goods Levine initially mixed fiberglass with clay to give the clay tensile strength when it was wet. However, this proved fragile. Later, she discovered that the incorporation of nylon helped her effectively produce her designs.
[vi] Levine has a B.S. (1957) and M.S. (1959) in chemistry from the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada.
[vii] Levine received a M.A. (1970) and a M.F.A (1971) from the University of California, Berkeley.
[viii] In the 1960s the Funk Movement evolved in California parallel with the anti-establishment Beatnik lifestyle developing in San Francisco. Funk began in the late 1950s with the haphazard and irreverent assemblages of Bruce Conner, later blending pop-culture imagery with lewd subject matter and a cartoon aesthetic to create a pointed critique of and alternative to the reigning New York abstract avant-garde movements, particularly Minimalism. https://www.artsy.net/gene/funk-art, 8 April 2019.
[ix] Marilyn Levine Oral History, 2002.
[x] Marilyn Levine Oral History, 2002.
[xi] http://www.richardshawart.com/home.html, 9 April 2019.
[xii] Richard Shaw, “Interview: Richard Shaw: Magic Tricks,” Work & Conversations, Conducted by Richard Whittaker, 25 August 2006.
[xiii]Shaw’s mother was an artist. His father was an animator/cartoonist. At one point his dad worked for Walt Disney Studios. However, Shaw’s father ended up primarily writing. Shaw received a B.F.A from the San Francisco Art Institute (1965) and M.F.A. from the University of California at Davis (1968).
[xiv] Shaw and Robert Hudson worked together in the early 1970s.
[xv] Interview with Richard Shaw, 2006.
[xvi] The overglaze transfer decals are a method that Shaw adapted from the silk-screening process. The decals make Shaw’s work even more realistic.
[xvii] https://asuartmuseum.asu.edu/sites/default/files/shaw_richard_biography.pdf, July 2007.
[xviii] Ah Leon’s real name is Chen Ching Liang. Ah Leon is his pottery name. Yixing is a city near Shanghai that has a long history as the “pottery capital” of China.
[xix] Wible, 87.
[xx] After graduating from the National Academy of Arts, Ah Leon found it difficult to make a living as a painter. He was an apprentice from 1978-1982.
[xxi] Wible, 40.
[xxii] Wible, 135.
[xxiii] Wible, 51.
[xxiv] Wible, 52.
[xxv] Wible, 56.
[xxvi] Wible, 56.
[xxvii] Wible, 53.