Trompe L'oeil ('deceives the eye'): John Hall’s Framed Series

“ oft-told ancient Greek story concerns a contest between two renowned painters. Zeuxis (born around 464 BC) produced a still life painting so convincing that birds flew down to peck at the painted grapes. A rival, Parrhasius, asked Zeuxis to judge one of his paintings that was behind a pair of tattered curtains in his study. Parrhasius asked Zeuxis to pull back the curtains, but when Zeuxis tried, he could not, as the curtains were included in Parrhasius's painting—making Parrhasius the winner.” *

In response to a question from an attendee of a gallery talk I gave in support of my 2016 Kelowna Art Gallery retrospective exhibition Travelling Light, I replied with a level of irritation that trompe l'oeil was a minor art genre that held little interest to me. My position has always been that while my paintings do involve fairly exact descriptions of things seen from a fixed point in time and space fooling viewers into thinking they’re looking at anything other than painted descriptions has never been of interest to me. Even when the still lifes I paint occupy very shallow space making them appropriate trompe l'oeil subjects I will adjust the scale (size) of their painted depictions to short circuit any attempt to view them as visual sleight-of-hand tricks. Nevertheless, in looking back over my paintings I have to acknowledge that trompe l'oeil has played a significant role in my oeuvre.

Passage acrylic on canvas 24 X 36 inches 2008

As early as the 1970s I did a few paintings of still lifes that had photographs held to flat vertical surfaces using, for example, push pins and masking or electrical tape. In these paintings, the photos, tape and other bits and pieces that were included were too large to be taken for real thereby preventing them from being seen as illusions and there was no attempt on my part to fool viewers into thinking they were looking at actual rather than a virtual painted description of, say, electrical tape or photographs. Then in Trinity, a painting of a plywood storage rack in my studio done in the 1990s, I came unexpectedly close to completely embracing the trompe l'oeil canon.

Trinity acrylic on canvas 18 X 27 inches 1997

However, it was in the Framed series started in 2016, nearly twenty years afterTrinity was painted, that I fully embraced the conventions of trompe l'oeil painting. Whitehorse 2017 (Verso), a painting of the back of my painting Whitehorse, is explicit in its attempt to fool viewers into believing they are, in actuality, looking at the back of a painting. This has been a constant and favourite theme of trompe l'oeil painters from Cornelis Norbertus Gijsbrechts’s 1776 painting The Reverse of a Framed Painting to Claudio Bravo’s 2005 Untitled and I am happy to add my Whitehorse 2017 (Verso) to this sub-group of trompe l'oeil painting.

The Reverse of a Framed Painting Untitled Claudio Bravo oil/canvas Whitehorse 2017 (Verso) John Hall

Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts oil/canvas 32 x 39.5 inches 2008 acrylic/canvas 40 x 40 inches 2017

26 X 34 inches 1670

In my trompe l'oeil paintings of the fronts or backs of framed paintings, I want viewers to first believe that they are looking at actual framed paintings and only on closer inspection to realize that the frame is painted and an integral part of the painting. In this, my goal is the same as that of Zeuxis and Parrhasius.

Vessel John Hall acrylic on canvas 36 X 36 inches 2016 Swirl John Hall acrylic on canvas 24 X 24 inches 2021

Crate is a 2021 acrylic on canvas painting of a plywood crate lid that travelled to and from the representational art Figurativas competition held biannually at the Museu Europeu d'Art Modern in Barcelona Spain. Attached to the battered plywood are various references to my life in art—photos, studio tools, still life objects, etc.—all rendered in acrylic paint on canvas. A video of the making of Crate can be seen here.

Crate John Hall acrylic on canvas 45 X 45 inches 2021

Phoenix subset

A group of paintings within the Framed series involves reworking existing paintings using various trompe l'oeil conventions and tropes. For instance, in 1968 I did a very large—18 or so feet wide—triptych painting using a crucifixion image for the centre canvas. In 2019, I reworked this canvas to make it appear as though the original canvas, showing the ravages of time such as extensive cracking, yellowed varnish, splashed paint, etc., had been taken off its original stretcher and restretched back-to-front on an antique stretcher. The reworked painting Phoenix 2 also contains painted reproductions of a contemporaneous newspaper review of the original triptych, a page with a Philip Pearlstein reproduction from an early museum survey exhibition of New Realist painting that I’d seen in Ohio in 1969, a page from a 1970 exhibition catalogue with a photograph of me, and various stickers, gold stars, other bits and pieces as well as a manila envelope addressed to Ian Loch, my current Calgary dealer attached to the stretcher. The final trompe l'oeil reference is a reproduction “hobo” frame back that was made by my son Jarvis to look like it was made in the latter half of the 19th century when tramp frames were common and popular. A second example is 4.03.99 that nearly twenty years after it was originally painted became Phoenix 3.

Crucifixion Triptych (centre canvas) John Hall acrylic on canvas Phoenix 2 John Hall acrylic on canvas 49.5 X 48 inches 1968-2019

49.5 X 48 inches 1968 "tramp" frame by Jarvis Hall

4.03.99 John Hall acrylic on canvas 24 x 36 inches 1999 Phoenix 3 John Hall acrylic on canvas 24 X 36 inches 1999-2018

John Hall 2022