The Heckscher Museum of Art’s “Master of Illusion: The Magical Art of Gary Erbe” — the artist’s first museum exhibit on Long Island — is both illusory and methodical, with the secrets behind his artistry revealed for all to see.
Erbe, a self-taught artist from New Jersey — he still lives in Nutley — learned the techniques of painting while working for an engraving company in the late 1960s. Painting at first in his spare time, he conceived the idea of “levitational realism” — his adaptation of 19th century trompe l’oeil paintings creating the illusion that the still life objects depicted are real — as if seen through a window. Instead, Erbe painted objects that seem real — and three-dimensional — even as they appear to float in space.
His 1973 “Levitated Tabletop Composition” is both super realist and Surrealist. It reminds you of a 1930s Dali without misshapen objects. On a table in a baker’s kitchen, everything looks ready to eat except for a single flower in a vase. A loaf of bread and a frosted cupcake are arrayed on a table with no legs floating against a cloudlike background. The cupcake teeters on the edge, casting a shadow for a 3-D effect. You’ll want to grab it before it falls.
POP TO PICASSO
Erbe’s you-won’t-believe-your-eyes art as well as his later works inspired by sources ranging from American pop culture and politics to Picasso are created through a process that begins with a meticulously constructed three-dimensional model from which the artist paints.
Two of his constructions are displayed at the Heckscher next to the paintings. In “The Big Splash,” 2001, see how many faces from 1950s television you can identify. Three appear on a black-and-white TV screen on a Cubist-style stand crowded with other objects — antenna ears, TV Guides and a TV dinner.
His constructions include many found or collected objects, giving us the impression that building the model is far more time-consuming than painting from it.
Some paintings carry a political message, such as “Frenzy,” 2007, during the Iraq War, in which sharks are ripping an American flag to shreds.
Reflecting his interest in jazz, “Virtuoso,” 1980, is in the two-dimentional style of a Picasso-rendered guitar, while “Southern Comfort,” 1998, reflects indigenous American music through a whimsically distorted banjo and accordion.
As you might expect of an artist who builds elaborate constructions before brushing a stroke, Erbe is also a sculptor. Next to one of his earliest paintings as you enter the first of two “Master of Illusion” galleries, “Today’s Special,” 1970, a floating sandwich, is augmented by “ ’76 Special,” a plated hot dog sculpture with a dollar bill suggesting its mid-’70s menu price. It looks as real as Erbe’s bronzed comic books stacked in one corner, “Comics II,” 1986.
A final note: Don’t overlook the frames in this show. Erbe builds them himself. They’re almost as much a work of art as the paintings for which they are an extension.