Jacob Pfeiffer is a meticulous craftsman with a cheeky sense of humor. An exhibition of his recent trompe l’oeil paintings, at Meyer East Gallery in Santa Fe, was rife with visual puns, and he remarks that he wants “to offer the viewer a respite from the serious times that we live in.” This premise is illustrated, on the most rudimentary level, by Tape Worms (all works 2009–10), in which two translucent, colorful gummy worms are taped to a smooth beige surface. The green, yellow and red cast-shadows are the most interesting aspect of the painting. The exhibition was titled “Food for Thought,” a pun in itself, as the majority of the objects depicted were foodstuffs. Pfeiffer works in the tradition of double-take art, which includes visual puzzles such as Renaissance emblems and Magritte’s Surrealism, as well as the trompe l’oeil mode popularized by William Harnett and John Peto in the nineteenth century. But Pfeiffer isn’t primarily interested in the stunt mimicry of paper money and letters tacked to boards. He handles the taped-to-the-wall conceit very well, however, in two botanical portraits—of a red lily, in Wall Flower II (cover), and of a vibrant green leaf, in Fallen. The delicacy of petal and leaf is emphasized by a deft deployment of shadows in the very shallow space.
In other cases, Pfeiffer goes for illusionistic depth, placing a convincingly three-dimensional object in a neutral space. The handsome specimen in Lemon-Aid has weight and a nicely textured skin; the adhesive bandage wrapped across its curvy form makes the joke without detracting from our pleasure in the object depicted with impressive legerdemain. This kind of mimesis presupposes smooth painted surfaces with no visible facture; the hand of the artist leaves no telltale marks. This aesthetic has something in common with photorealism, which seeks to replicate the image produced by the compositional eye mediated through a chemical process. Pfeiffer’s The Great Pyramid, a cornucopia of breads and fruit rearing up in showy abundance, moves in that direction. It could be shown alongside Roberto Bernardi’s hyper-real fruit still lifes, which bring a certain Caravaggian glamour to a style that sometimes settles for reductive verisimilitude.
As a rule, however, Pfeiffer’s paintings look nothing like photographs. Take the neutral spaces he devises for his still lifes: characteristically, a smooth beige countertop, with a couple of tiny nicks, for support and a shaded smoky brown backdrop. It’s a painter’s fiction alerting the viewer to the fact that the everyday objects he depicts are stranger than we think. One of the handsomest pictures in the exhibition is Cheese Cake, a side-by-side pairing of a wellmottled wedge of cheese and an iced cupcake. The play of language is almost Joycean, and the visual results are both aesthetically appealing and amusing. Pfeiffer includes a fly in the tableau, a trick that painters have been using since antiquity. Even the early Renaissance master Carlo Crivelli occasionally added a fly to images of the Virgin and Child surrounded by very realistic fruit. Not all of Pfeiffer’s paintings invite close scrutiny. Some—like New Idea, with an energy-saving lightbulb suspended over a human head—are essentially cartoons, prompting little more than a smile. But when he fully engages with his subject, as in Cheese Cake, the physical beauty of the object and the artist’s skill and wit come together in very intriguing ways. It would be rewarding to see this polished painter, who has quirky ideas about the nature of representation, tackle more complex and ambitious projects. “Food for Thought” was on view August 27–September 30, 2010, at Meyer East Gallery, 225 Canyon Road, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501. Telephone (505) 983-1657. On the web at www.meyereastgallery.com
American Arts Quarterly, Volume 27, Number 4.