M. C. Escher, Dalí and Duchamp were old champs at the art of visual manipulation, but modern-day artists are digitally and traditionally creating cognitive illusions that force a double take. Flat surfaces are turned cavernous with colored chalk, simple graphics are laced with hidden images and ordinary photos are turned into surreal landscapes.
There’s a market for visual trickery, a history of it and a delight when Gestalt theories are interrupted, supported and all together set on end. Don’t be frustrated if you don’t see the illusions on first glance, just look twice.
1. Damien Gilley
Portland-based multi-disciplinary artist Damien Gilley creates immense depth on flat surfaces and walls using only colored strips of tape and contact paper. His designs are meticulously measured and calculated considering the unique proportions and dimensions of each space where he constructs his art. The geometry of his work makes flat surfaces appear to have immense depth and space.
2. Leandro Erlich
We were first transfixed by one of Argentina-based Leandro Erlich’s pieces when he revealed his mirrored street art instillation in Paris. People seemingly dangled from the third floor windows of a Paris flat while others perched precariously on roofs and scaled the sides. In reality, a life-sized building facade was constructed on the ground, while a giant mirror projected the image. Another of his instillations, “L’ultime Déménagement,” is a sculpture of a giant piece of a building facade, anchored to the ground by nothing more than a ladder.
3. Tang Yau Hoong
Self-taught, Malaysia-based illustrator Tang Yau Hoong toys with negative space and light to create conceptual, surreal illustrations that are nothing short of delightful. He makes cityscapes morph into nature scenes and plays with the physics of light.
4. Erik Johansson
Erik Johansson isn’t as concerned with capturing moments as he is ideas. The Swedish-born, Berlin-based photographer and retoucher creates intricately layered photo illustrations that combine mind-bending landscapes and surreal concepts.
5. Julian Beever
While previously holding jobs like “photographer’s assistant, tree-planter, carpet-fitter, art teacher, English teacher, street entertainer and Punch and Judy Man,” Julian Beever landed in the perfect career—a world-renowned artist who creates terrifyingly real pavement art with chalk. Take a walk past one of Beever’s works and you could find yourself teetering atop a building in Time Square or sitting on the top of a frighteningly steep ferris wheel.
6. Thomas Barbéy
Photographer Thomas Barbéy uses photos from his travels in the past two decades to create surreal situations and scenes, and often marries two photos that are decades apart in one image. He prefers to shoot in 35mm and uses an enlarger and darkroom to create his photo illustrations. Tiny skiers careen down the edge of a bed sheet, the keys of a piano bleed into the stripes of two zebras and a hilltop castle hovers over the center of Niagara Falls in Barbéy’s fantastical photographs.
7. Oleg Shuplyak
On first glance, Oleg Shuplyak’s dreamy paintings appear to be classically-styled landscapes, or portraits of figures from art, culture and fiction. On second glance, the optical illusions are actually both—classic landscape imagery and figures are carefully styled to represent eyes, noses, mouths and hair to their larger counterparts (who happen to be figures like Vincent Van Gogh, Charles Darwin and John Lennon).
8. Edgar Mueller
German artist Edgar Mueller doesn’t toy with the fear of height—he creates the fear on flat, public spaces by painting over them to change their appearance. A street suddenly has an enormous cracked glacier, a smooth river quickly turns into a waterfall with a seemingly 90-degree drop and a cavernous lava pit takes over a street in some of Mueller’s works.
9. Felice Varini
From one vantage point, Felice Varini’s paintings are simplistic geometric shapes that look like they have been photoshopped over regular rooms, living spaces and buildings. From another angle, they appear to be fragmented pieces haphazardly painted in various areas. Varini uses anamorphosis to trick the eye to see a complete object from a certain point. In his project “Cercle et suite d’éclats” Varini painted perfect anamorphosis circles over an entire town in the Swiss Alps.
10. Ramon Bruin
Dutch artist Ramon Bruin specializes in airbrushing, but his drawings are intricate optical illusions that appear to jump off the drawing pads. Also using the anamorphosis technique, Bruin’s drawings are created as slightly distorted to display a scene that appears to be 3-D from a certain vantage point.