A New Form of Expression
This post is an excerpt from my book Asphalt Renaissance where I describe the ideas and experiences that led me to inventing 3D pavement art. An extensive collection of more recent 3D pavement art images can be found on my image archive here: Kurt Wenner Image Library
The invention of an entirely new form of perspective was born out of Wenner’s need to make an irrefutably original artistic statement within the context of classicism. He was determined to find a way to make people understand that he was making original compositions. As he worked, he constantly considered different ways to reintroduce the language of classical art to the public. He knew he had to create something so astonishing that it would catch people completely off guard and shake them free of any assumptions they held about classical art. Inventing 3D pavement art turned out to be the solution to this problem.
Wenner. The Ghetto. (detail of painting)
I had been photographing my street paintings in order to share them with others, and it was interesting to see how the camera transformed the images. I also liked seeing the painted figures in juxtaposition with the people who stood next to them. Every now and then, a dramatic sense of depth in the painting would appear in the photo that had not been apparent to me while working on the image. The sheer size of my paintings made photographing them a problem. If I stood far enough away to capture the entire image, it was foreshortened beyond recognition. In an attempt to fit a composition into a single photo, I’d often take multiple shots and create a collage. I was fascinated by the effect the camera had on my work.
Perspective Demonstration. This drawing is shown as an anamorphic andcurvilinear perspective. Spheres and circles become elongated when projected on a plane away from the center. The eye is curved, and therefore does not everdistort round objects. Like a fisheye lens, the eye projects straight lines as curves,but the brain ignores this fact.
Linear perspective, as we know it today, was invented in the early Italian Renaissance. When geometry was applied to art, it ended up revolutionizing painting and drawing. By making mathematical calculations taken from the point of view of a theoretical spectator looking directly at the finished painting hanging on a wall, artists designed images that made the flat surface of the canvas appear to be three-dimensional. Painters were able to make some figures and objects appear nearer to the viewer, while others retreated into the background. The technique didn’t work in every application, however.
Almost a century before the High Renaissance, artists began to study perspective geometry. They painstakingly projected complex dimensional forms point by point onto the flat surface of the paper. Certain projections confused them, as the geometry didn’t seem to work. These aberrations are called “paradoxes” of perspective. One early author wrote a book about them and was himself nicknamed “Il Paradosso.” The worst problems are seen in the projections of circles and spheres. The bases of columns appear to tilt when they are drawn at the edge of the picture plane, and spheres became elongated, appearing egg-like. These effects are not due to calculation mistakes, but are the result of the continuation of perspective geometry into the anamorphic plane. Today, we can see this effect in photos taken with wide-angle rectilinear lenses.
Curvilinear Perspective. Wenner’s use of perspective is different from historical anamorphic perspective because it takes into account the wide viewing angle of human vision. His works appear three-dimensional not because they are distorted, but because they are mathematically correct.
Wenner is particularly drawn to a little-known form of perspective known as anamorphism, or anamorphic perspective. This form of perspective was discovered in the Renaissance, but was not developed as an artistic technique until the seventeenth century. It was usually employed in murals painted very high up on walls, such as those found in cathedrals and palaces. Instead of creating perspective by utilizing the conventional geometric calculations made from the point of view of someone looking directly at a painting hanging at eye level, the geometry for anamorphism was applied from the point of view of a spectator standing many feet below the painting and looking up at it at an oblique angle. Only by inventing 3D pavement art could this problem be solved.
Sometimes illusionistic ceilings combine anamorphic perspective with trompe l’oeil. Actual architectural elements present on or near a ceiling, such as capitals, windows, skylights, and structural beams, can appear to continue into the painted decorations. When viewed from a particular point on the floor, the architecture blends with the painting to form a combined image. This results in a highly dramatic perspective that gives a feeling of exaggerated height. In Rome, there are a number of ceilings that combine these effects, and it can be quite difficult to see were the frescos stop and the architectural relief begins. It was of immense help to me to have climbed up and viewed several ceilings so I could see how the figures had been elongated or cut into the sculptural relief in order to make it appear as if they floated over it.
Wenner was attracted to the dramatic quality of anamorphic imagery. He liked the way anamorphic paintings incorporated architectural details into the works themselves, and thought that integrating paving stones and other facets of the streets into his paintings would be fun. Wenner’s audience did not look above their heads at his paintings, but viewed them below eye level on the sidewalk. Onlookers saw the work at an oblique angle, and in the case of very large street paintings, the viewer could not recognize the details at the top of the painting while standing at the bottom. Because the viewpoint of the audience always dictates the geometric calculations used in any type of perspective, Wenner would have to invent an entirely new type of pictorial geometry in order to create the correct anamorphic perspective needed to rectify the distortion caused by viewing his large images on the pavement.
Wenner. Cocito. Pasadena, California. Cocito is the name of the lowest level of hell in Dante’s “Inferno”. This composition was premiered at the Pasadena “Chalk itUp” festival.
I visited churches and palaces where examples of anamorphic perspective existed and was able to solve the paradoxes that had confused the artists of the Renaissance. I discovered that the distortions followed hyperbolic curves, which were the geometrical inverse of curvilinear perspective. Studying the physiology of the eye confirmed that the problems with linear perspective stemmed from the fact that the back of the eye is curved, and therefore has a much wider field of vision than linear perspective could accommodate. Anamorphic distortions do not occur within the eye itself, and therefore artists were unable to accept incorporating such distortions in their works. Conversely, if a composition is to depict what the eye sees, it must move into the anamorphic plane. I spent endless hours in my studio studying and composing, using a fish-eye lens to better understand how sight and perception work. Eventually, I was able to invent the geometry that allowed me to utilize anamorphic perspective for street painting.
Wenner soon began creating large compositions with astonishing depth that interacted with the environment. After years of learning how to draw the human form in proportion, he was now training himself to distort it. This time it wasn’t in error, but rather a carefully calculated distortion. Interestingly, the forms and proportions of classical design are not affected by these distortions. This proved again to Wenner that classical design is abstract and exists independently of what it represents.
My new form of perspective is unique in that the forms are normal at the bottom of the painting and grow gradually longer and more attenuated as they recede from the spectator. The resulting images are very dramatic. For instance, I can make a painted figure’s arms or legs reach vividly out to the viewer while, at the same time, the head and torso sink deeply into the background. I was eager to see how the public would react to these distorted images, and I needed to know how they perceived them, as well as whether they could “read” them. I was anxious to know if the distortions would turn people away, or provoke them to take a closer look. I was fascinated to learn that the public saw my images in many different ways. Some people barely noticed the more extreme distortions, while minor alterations often proved very disturbing to them. My compositions were initially highly experimental, and the public’s input enabled me to rework the ideas with a more complete understanding.
Wenner. Cocito, (detail of painting). Pasadena, California.
It was necessary to invent a new type of perspective geometry in order to properly compose my images on the street. All painted images using perspective assume a precise location of the viewer. In most works the public can stand at the point from which the artist has calculated the perspective. Composing a street painting to be viewed from the bottom respects the philosophy of perspective geometry. If I were to create a conventional mural perspective on the street, it would cause the viewing position to float above the picture and the image to appear equally distorted from all angles.
Wenner’s invention enabled him to make undeniable contemporary art while remaining true to his beloved classicism. He began by creating elaborate three-dimensional paintings, with figures desperately attempting to crawl out of a glowing inferno or break free from an icy underworld. A single hand or foot might be seen to emerge through an actual crack in the pavement and extend the illusion beyond the painting’s borders.
I love inserting dramatic images into everyday contexts. An apocalyptic scene or view of Dante’s hell creates a powerful juxtaposition between the artwork and the viewers who stand around it wearing shorts and T-shirts, looking complacently at a horrific scene of doom and destruction. Other compositions may depict idyllic scenes in sharp contrast to glum surroundings. Such images do not exist within the safe borders of decorative picture frames; they bend the limits of perception.
Wenner. Mermaids. Santa Barbara, California. This work was created during the second I Madonnari festival.
People love to be fooled into thinking that unlikely images such as a fiery pit, a pool filled with Greek goddesses, or cracks in the pavement are real. It evokes a sense of wonder, similar to the response of an audience to magic acts performed by a skilled magician. While stylistic references may link Wenner’s work to another period in time, the photographic images are bound in the present, incorporating the contemporary environment that surrounds the painting. Wenner enchants us by bringing literature, history, and imagination to ordinary locations and transforming them. His images incorporate the viewer into the art, making us wonder if the physical world is truly more substantial than the perceptual one.
Mermaids from Above. From the top of the Santa Barbara Mission the works can be seen in their elongated anamorphic forms.
Images created with conventional perspective look realistic only when the observer stands in the spot from which the perspective was mathematically calculated. Yet even when an observer walks around a conventional picture, the image will sometimes still be perceived as being three-dimensional. This happens because conventional perspective is a language of seeing rather than an illusion. The human eye is a vastly complicated mechanism, and the way in which the brain interprets what the eye sees has much to do with individual physiognomy and cultural conditioning. The images in my street paintings truly appear realistic only when viewed from a specific point that I have selected. If such paintings were hung on a wall, the viewer would see all the anamorphic devices, and the images would look oddly elongated and distorted.
By inventing 3D pavement art, Wenner has undoubtedly achieved his goal of creating unique, original images within the genre of classicism, and for his efforts he has received global recognition.
Wenner. Gluttony, (detail of Painting). Mantua, Italy. This composition was one of a series of works depicting contemporary “hells”.
See more 3D Pavement Art here: 3D Pavement Art