Times Art Writer

The medium is not the illusion, as the title proclaims in the current exhibition at Cal State Fullerton's art gallery. It's the seven artists' transformation of their materials that causes double takes in this show of illusionistic sculpture.

You know the kind: Marilyn Levine's clay that looks like leather, Richard Shaw's ceramic renditions of books and papers, Richard Haden's painted wood sculptures of paint buckets and a gasoline can, Robert Bourdon's wooden dolly and an all-wood dinette chair that you'd swear was upholstered with naugahyde and patched with silver duct tape. And here's a new one: Kodo Okuda's lacquered ivory emulations of "Fallen Leaves," all curled, dry and perforated.

The idea of fooling the eye goes back to the Greeks, as Jan Butterfield's catalogue essay and a slide show in the gallery remind us, but it lives in contemporary art for at least three reasons: People love to be tricked by astonishing craftsmanship, they like to recognize the subject depicted and they feel comforted by knowing that their 5-year-old kids couldn't do better.

The best illusionistic art does more than imitate, but verisimilitude and virtuosity are what make it ever popular. Unfortunately, we've been subjected to so many trompe l'oeil shows in recent years that the bells and whistles don't go off anymore. What do you do after you've said "gee whiz" more times than you'd care to remember?

Well, for one thing, you look for conceptual differences between the artists. In this small show, organized by Karin Schnell and Joseph Silvestri, there are some.

Allan Adams stands out as a purist who doesn't try to make his unfinished wood look like another material. Instead he creates homages to his medium by making a maple "Box Full" of wood-working tools and a witty sculpture called "Some of My Mistakes" that bristles with wooden curls, corkscrews, knobs and ribbons.

While Levine's tattered suitcases and Shaw's clever still lifes suffer from overexposure, Ron Isaacs' work profits from unfamiliarity. His painted wood reliefs of life-size antique clothing and leaves--combined with little cut-out figures and painted landscapes--don't fool you into thinking they are what they are not. They just carry the deception far enough to involve you in nostalgic narratives.

"Polka Dot Navy Taffeta Jacket," for example, is rather like the curtain of a stage that opens to reveal a midnight scene of frame houses and a young woman engaged in unexplained activities. More than the other artists represented, Isaacs is a painter who uses intricately carved wood to add another dimension to his dreamy memory pieces. He gets carried away with the romance of it all, but he takes the genre far beyond its usual limitations.

"The Medium Is the Illusion" continues through Friday. Gallery hours: noon to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays.

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