Henry Grabar is a staff writer for Slate’s Moneybox and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
Swiss artist Felice Varini transforms the viewer's perception of space.
Across from the green in downtown New Haven, a small alley runs between the buildings. It's exactly the kind of alley visitors to the city are told to avoid, which is a shame, because it's a short-cut to a theater, a parking garage, and a delicious backdoor pizzeria.
Then Felice Varini arrives, and paints a mural that makes visitors feel like this alley is exactly where they're supposed to be. Four circles within a square hang in the air like a segment of a Connect Four set, suspended between the spiral parking garage and the viewer. Local phlebotomist Secor Upson, drawn in by the shifting perspectives, says that walking down this alley is "like being born."
Upson's physical reaction -- he moves side to side, forward and backward, trying to size up what he sees -- is typical of a viewer approaching Varini's pieces, watching the artist's colored arcs and distorted quadralaterals slide into coherent shapes. Walking on, they drift apart again. It's best to savor the golden moment of coherence when you've seen it emerge.
This poses a problem for Varini's work in photographs. Most photographers choose to document his works from that perfect perspective, but the projections are so convincing that it often looks like someone simply painted a shape on top of the photograph.
The piece in New Haven, which Varini did over a few weeks in the spring of 2010, is his only public work in the United States. But elsewhere, since his first perspective drawings appeared in a Paris apartment in 1979, the Paris-based artist has been prolific. His work has appeared all over the world, in Japanese plazas, Swiss hill towns, Welsh ports, and a number of galleries, museums and universities.
és." Chateau des Adhemar, Montelimar, France, 2003. Felice Varini.
és." Orangerie du Chateau de Versailles, Versailles, France, 2006. Felice Varini.
At this point, he says, cities looking to rejuvenate a public place or spice up an historic monument come to him. And with promises of washable paint and other clever material solutions, he has been able to paint what most of us can't even touch. He has drawn on the walls of Versailles (2005), a 12th century abbey in western France (2006), and the 15th century Augustinian monastery in Monte Carasso (2004).
The interaction between drawing, perspective and architecture is always different. Often, Varini's designs play off structural proportions or paths of pedestrian movement. Sometimes, his shapes cluster around vanishing points, emphasizing the existing architectural vistas. Other times, they create new patterns that challenge our perception.
ésaxé autour du rectangle." Ecole d'architecture de Nancy, Nancy, France, 1996. Felice Varini.
és evides, rouge jaune et bleu." Le Silo, Marines, Frances, 2011. Felice Varini.
How does he do it? Briefly, with light projection and, sometimes, a team of painters who are not afraid of heights. (Often, the making of the work is of as much interest to onlookers as the completed project.) But Varini doesn't like talking about his process -- it's like a restaurant, he says. Just enjoy the food; don't try to see what's in the kitchen.
His largest work, in Saint-Nazaire, France, took a month for a team of 25 painters to install on the city's industrial cityscape. It was supposed to be temporary, but after its completion in 2007, the city liked it so much that they kept it. (Check out the panorama here.)
His favorite? Whatever he's done most recently. Right now, that's an installation at Paris' Grand Palais, the massive glass-roofed hall built for the Universal Exposition of 1900. "Dynamo," a review of artists who use vision, space, light and movement in their works, opens on April 10th.