Tricks of the Trade

Art concepts are demonstrated and exhibited at UAMA's 'The Aesthetic Code'

It's not often that the art world gets involved in extreme sports, but you can find an example of extreme perspective right now on the floor of the University of Arizona Museum of Art.

Melanie Stimmell, a street artist known as a maestra of trompe l'oeil and 3-D, spent three days at the museum in November creating a giant painting that gives a view into an 18th-century French drawing room. A lady in pink looks just like Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette in the Sofia Coppola movie. Nearby, on a round table, are the cakes—pretty in pastel blue and pink—that the queen thought the poor ought to eat.

But what's striking about Stimmell's painted slice of the Ancien Régime—besides the fact that it's a 12-foot artwork lying untethered on the museum floor—is its elaborate use of perspective. It offers up an extreme-angle view of the room's tiled interior; when you look at it, you feel like you've been flying through the air and are just now peering down into a high palace window.

The Stimmell stunt was the kickoff of an exhibition that examines multiple tricks of the artist's trade, including the perspective that Stimmell illustrates so ably. The Aesthetic Code: Unraveling the Secrets of Art is an art primer that demonstrates how artists use line, shape, value, space, color and so on. The 37 pieces in the exhibition are mostly from the second half of the 20th century, and in contrast to Stimmell's kicky pop-culture art on the floor, the works on the wall tend toward high-minded modernism. Their purist abstractions and near-abstractions, all lines and space, readily lend themselves to curator Lauren Rabb's project to tease out the elements of art. Largely drawn from the museum's own collection, they feature a few boldface names, including Jackson Pollock, Roy Lichtenstein, Stuart Davis and Josef Albers.

Vytas Sakalas, a local artist not in the museum collection, made it into the show because of his preoccupation with optics, pattern and repetition. His "Wallski," 2004, is an oil-on-aluminum cutout that demonstrates not only positive and negative space, but optical illusion. The colored bars on this intriguing construction are stationary, of course, but as you squint at them, they seem to change continuously, popping out and receding, and mutating from flat stripes to 3-D beams.

One of his paintings, "Atmanshere #7," and a lithograph, "Dance of the Cosmic Humantoads," 1990, both use fractals, mathematical patterns related to the natural world. His "humantoads" are carefully angled black figures repeated multiple times. Nearby is Pollock's "No. 20, 1950," a small oil on Masonite in a limited palette of black, white, gray and pink created by his familiar drip-painting technique. Pollock's drip paintings are typically seen as works of near-chance, but some critics argue that they're made up of fractals.

In the exhibition text, Rabb takes a stab at explaining fractals, noting that "these structures are not random; they organize themselves along patterns at an infinite range of scales."

If that sounds confusing, it is, especially for those of us who never mastered higher math. Rabb has said that her original plan was to curate an exhibition about the intersection between art and math, and she began working with a UA math professor and some math majors to identify appropriate math-related works in the UAMA collection. But she soon realized that concepts like fractals, tessellations (repeated shapes with no spaces in between) and the so-called golden ratio (a theory that certain ideal geometric shapes are most pleasing to the human eye) were a tad too complex for a general show.

So she scaled back and began the show with a tutorial in the simplest of art concepts—the line—and built from there. To reinforce the lessons, she's set up hands-on learning activities that teach optics and color theory. You can sketch a skull inside of a giant camera obscura, look at Sean Paul Pluguez's "Pink Clouds Over Kandahar" through 3-D glasses (the hot pinks seem to pop out onto a different plane from the other colors), or spin a color wheel and take a look at Albers' screenprints to see how colors change in our minds' eye when we see them in differing contexts.

These educational experiments are entertaining, but even if you're not interested in learning the show's art lessons, you can still enjoy the works Rabb hauled out of storage.

In the first section, "Laocoön," a 1978 etching by Werner Drewes, has a wonderful array of line in all its manifestations. His lines are thick, thin, straight, curved, dark and light; they define empty white space and, as short strokes, create swaths of dark black. They even, in their abstract way, conjure up the sea snakes of Greek myth that strangled Laocoön and his sons.

Illustrating the use of shape, Stuart Davis' color screenprint "Study for a Drawing," 1955, is a lively assemblage of irregular passages, colored bouncy red, white, blue and black. Surrealist Kay Sage's more austere "An Important Event," a 1938 oil on canvas, a composition of subtly colored planks and circles and ovals, uses shape to create moody drama.

"The Night Piece—V," a lovely 1985 screenprint by Gen Yamanaka, deploys every possible tone of gray in a serene, simplified streetscape under a starry night sky. Rabb chose it to demonstrate value—the way color ranges from dark to light—but it's also a fine example of extreme perspective. A wood engraving from the museum's excellent collection of Works Progress Administration prints, Salvatore Pinto's 1930s "Trolley Car," demonstrates a more realistic, and quite charming, use of perspective. Pinto pictures the interior of the trolley from the back, with sharp diagonals converging at the driver's seat up front. There's even a tiny glimpse of San Francisco's slanting streets out the front window.

Lichtenstein's funny little "Seascape," a screenprint and collage from 1964-1965, is a surprising switch from his more familiar cartoon panels writ large. Just 5 inches by 8 inches, it's a view of the shore from the sea. The dark-blue ocean is in the low foreground; hills in beige and navy polka dots stretch across the horizon; and an infinite sky above is rendered in shiny silver against blue. Quite rightly, Rabb notes that the piece uses illusionistic space to suggest that the sky "expand(s) endlessly beyond the picture plane."

Near the tiny Lichtenstein is Pluguez's enormous 2008 "Flamenco," the biggest work in the entire show. A five-panel painting some 20 feet long and 10 feet tall, this black-and-white gesso and acrylic latex on canvas is given as an example of balance. It is nicely balanced, pulling a viewer's eye in every direction, but it's more of a joyful celebration of movement than an object lesson in discipline. Its black lines cavort across the canvas, tracing out the path of a dancer's darting hands and swirling skirts, mutating from thick to thin, from dark to light, and back again.