A Matter Of Perspective

Matthew Flowers, director of the Flowers East art gallery in London, has seen it many times--the peculiar series of motions that people go through when they catch sight of a Patrick Hughes painting for the first time. "We call it the Patrick Hughes dance," says Flowers. "They stop. They walk backwards." They crane their necks left and right and bob their heads up and down, as if they can't believe what they're seeing. As they move, everything in these paintings seems to move with them. Bookshelves swivel, walls shift, a series of parallel doors opens onto a vista of the Great Wall of China. "When we show Hughes's work at art fairs, people think it's done with mirrors or electric motors," says Flowers. "But there's no trick. The trick is in your own mind."

Flowers has seen the "dance" dozens of times a day since Hughes's latest show opened at his gallery on Feb. 14. Entitled "Whopperspective," the exhibition encompasses many of Hughes's finest works, some of which sell for as much as $80,000. All the paintings combine elements of realism and surrealism with the dizzying perspective that has become Hughes's trademark. "He creates the most seamless illusions I've ever seen," says New York art dealer Louis Meisel, who laments only that two-dimensional photos cannot convey the illusions of movement properly.

To achieve these effects, Hughes starts with three-dimensional canvases that resemble giant Toblerone chocolate bars turned on their sides. Repeating triangles or pyramids jut out toward the viewer. As you move from side to side, the vantage of one surface against the other shifts, creating the impression that parts of the painting are disappearing. But the real key to the illusion is an effect that Hughes calls "reverse perspective." Corridors that appear to recede actually project toward the viewer on the protruding points. Walls that seem to stick out are in fact notched into indentations between points. Once Hughes has turned the world inside out in this way, buildings and other structures move in completely unsettling ways. He then heightens the illusion with a trompe l'oeil use of line and shading.

One might dismiss all this as a clever trick, if the paintings didn't raise such powerful questions about perception and reality. "His work literally changed my life," says music historian Rosamond McGuinness, who found in Hughes's paintings the lesson that she could transform negative aspects of her life simply by changing her perspective on them. "People often ask me why there are no people in my paintings," says Hughes. "I like to say that you're the people in my paintings. Without you, they don't move. They're just lumps of painted wood." In one of his most haunting works, completed shortly before September 11, 2001, he shows the World Trade Center standing bold against a clear azure sky. When you draw close, however, you see that the towers recede into the canvas, a mere ghost of themselves. Or consider this work in progress: a series of prison doors with a splendid vista beyond. When it's finished, will the doors open onto grand new possibilities or stifle freedom? Hughes knows. It depends on your perspective.