Anamorphic art creates visual tricks that fool our brains. Two-dimensional, distorted images suddenly spring to life as three-dimensional forms when viewed from the right angle. These clever optical illusions have surprised and delighted us for hundreds of years. Leonardo Di Vinci and Albrecht Durer both created deformed abstractions based on the 7th century BCE Greek mathematician Euclid’s theory that the field of human vision can be defined as a pyramid, with the eye of the beholder at its apex.
Optical illusions trick the mind because our brains seek to make sense from the data our eyes present. The reality of the plane occupied by the piece is masked, and our brains accept the alternate reality presented by the artist because the perspective and shadow all adds up. These artworks give particular pleasure because of the impossibility of what they present—objects that apparently defy the laws of physics or bring imaginary creatures and places to life so convincingly that we feel able to reach out and touch them.
In the last few decades, contemporary street artists have really embraced the style and taken it to a new level. Take, for instance, Italian artist Peeta. In 2021’s “Poli Urban Colors,” Peeta took a mundane urban building in Milan and utterly transformed its surface, painting giant abstract rotors that appear to have bitten a whole chunk out of the frontage. Clever use of line and color gives the viewer the impression of an utterly convincing hole, impossibly carved through the building, housing giant abstract cylindrical forms.
To celebrate this resurgence of anamorphic art, here are several individuals creating pieces that jump out from the rest.
Mexican street artist Adry del Rocio creates bold 3D murals. In a piece for Den Helder City in the Netherlands, a playful seal intertwines between impossible column structures that are reminiscent of the mind-bending imaginings of the classic modernist artist MC Escher. In 2019, she created the award-winning “Swimming in red” / “Nadando en rojo” (pictured below) for the International Street Art Festival in Brande, Denmark. The slaughter of whales in the Faroe Islands is commemorated by her work, where these beautiful mammals jump and play out of a sea of crimson, their tails morphing into flowers.
On that mind-bendy note are the distorted sculptures of Jonty Hurwitz. Using a variety of materials—from copper to perspex—the London artist/scientist performs a number of computer calculations, enabling him to warp, say, an endangered frog or horse (see below) or skull or, even, basketball players into unrecognizable objects. However, place a cylindrical mirror at its center, or view it from a precise angle, and the enigmatic sculpture reveals itself.
Another trailblazer of contemporary anamorphism is the art collective known as Troika, whom explore a range of ways to read reality in both the digital and physical world. In 2013’s “Squaring the Circle,” a series of perspective sculptures appear to be both a circle and a square, depending on how you view it. Made from a steel frame, the piece was wrapped in a thick black flock that absorbs the light.
James Nizam works with light to transform a space. In 2016’s “Frieze,” a single beam of sunlight enters a mundane-looking room through a carefully made hole. The resulting flood of light into the space creates an almost dreamlike feel, with the ethereal, shining beams creating captivating lines and divisions in what cannot now be described as an empty room. Nizam is also known for modifying rooms by removing chunks of walls and floorboards to create anamorphic effects like in "Orthodrome" (pictured below).
French artist Georges Rousse transforms entire spaces, punctuating abandoned buildings with surprising intrusions of bold color and shape. His 3D installations, such as the long-running “Architectures Virtuelles” series, are captured with a single photograph, creating bold, flat forms out of a layered and complex reality. His intuitive use of light and space makes his work endlessly fascinating, as you paradoxically try to peer through the layers that have often been used to create a single, pristine and bold shape.
In a career spanning over 30 years, world-renowned artist John Pugh has been creating show-stopping trompe l’oeil murals (French for “deceiving the eye”) on a grand scale, whether it be giant snakes crashing through solid walls or revealing hidden temples and buildings by “peeling away” completely flat surfaces.
"Here Yesterday" by John Pugh can be found in Hermosa Beach, California.
At Lucy McKenzie’s recent show at Tate Liverpool, UK, she played with the boundaries between fine art, design and architecture, reviving ancient techniques like grisaille (i.e., mimicking the texture and feel of stone using paint). Her exhibition presented a complete room featuring trompe l’oeil radiators and surfaces painted to imitate marble. Like Pugh, she often refers back to classical architecture, but the whole thing is stained and scuffed as if from long use. This adds another layer of humor and deception to the fantasy—making the optical illusion feel “lived in.”
One of the masters of illusory street art is Sérgio Odieth, a Portuguese visual artist who has amazing mastery of light, perspective and color. He has tackled a huge range of subjects, from crushed vehicles to the natural world, that spring from the walls on which they are painted, full of energy and movement. Perhaps his most surprising work is a giant gold spray can, shown suspended against the wall by a layer of transparent plastic wrap, secured with rough sections of tape. The utterly convincing depiction of the see through plastic, wrinkled and warped by the round can beneath it, cements Odieth as one of the greatest living muralists.
Words by Laura Hadland
Featured image ("Revolution") by John Pugh