Think you know M.C. Escher? Reconsider the dorm-poster mainstay’s optical illusions at the North Carolina Museum of Art | Visual Art | Indy Week

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Think you know M.C. Escher? Reconsider the dorm-poster mainstay’s optical illusions at the North Carolina Museum of Art

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When we spoke with Nasher Museum of Art director Sarah Schroth for the museum's 10th anniversary, she noted that, while she loves contemporary art, it doesn't speak to everyone. That's one reason she wanted to mount El Greco to Velázquez: Art During the Reign of Philip III, which paid off: It remains the Nasher's most highly attended exhibit to date.

Though I, too, love contemporary and experimental art­, I took her point. The cutting-edge stuff critics rave over is not for all, or even most, tastes and knowledge bases. And neither being popular nor being old necessarily makes a work of art unimportant. On the contrary, the opposite is often true. The North Carolina Museum of Art is clearly bearing populist appeal in mind with a pair of new exhibits, ticketed together, which shed new light on two over-familiar names who meet each other, in different eras, at the nexus of art and science.

The Worlds of M.C. Escher: Nature, Science, and Imagination is the largest career survey of the 20th-century Dutch printmaker ever produced in the U.S. By delving into and expanding around Escher's famous optical illusions, it challenges shallow notions of him as a mere pop-culture trickster. Meanwhile, Leonardo da Vinci's Codex Leicester and the Creative Mind reminds us, through a rare chance to explore one of his handwritten notebooks, that the original Renaissance man's contributions to Western civilization go much deeper than "Mona Lisa."

If you think you know these two, it's time to think again. —Brian Howe


Did you know the M.C. in M.C. Escher stands for Maurits Cornelis? Had it ever even occurred to you to wonder?

To many, calling Escher a serious artist is like calling Rube Goldberg a serious engineer. For 20th-century gatekeepers, the Dutch draftsman and printmaker was too gimmicky and decorative, too zany and pictorial, with too many fiddly bits for not enough payoff.

The New York Times' Roberta Smith summed up the prevailing view by describing his work as being "for beginners, an esthetic first love, like the poetry of Khalil Gibran or Pachelbel's Canon, that is soon outgrown." The insinuation is that immediacy—and perhaps, popularity itself—is intrinsically vulgar.

Growing up in Hillsborough, I didn't know from Gibran or Pachelbel, but I loved Escher, mainly for the space-warping lithographs that make up a relatively small part of his work compared with the outsize space they occupy in his reputation. You know the ones: A waterfall that flows back up to its own crest, a loop of endlessly ascending stairs, people traversing corridors and landings where up, down, left and right lose all meaning.

Think you know Leonardo da Vinci? Reconsider the original Renaissance man through one of his notebooks at the North Carolina Museum of Art

I also loved the tessellations, where identical figures, often of animals, are interlocked in airtight mosaic patterns. Many are raked by virtuosic transformations, so that geography, people, creatures and pure shapes evolve into one another, revealing a mathematical fabric of reality.

In the wholesale threshing of childish tastes that comes with the onset of adulthood, much that falls by the wayside deserves to. But there is always collateral damage. One would be remiss to write off E.E. Cummings because his poetry has a surface pizzazz a young person can appreciate as well as subtler depths to discover in adulthood.

Heading into The Worlds of M.C. Escher: Nature, Science, and Imagination at the North Carolina Museum of Art, I wondered how Escher would hold up.

Assembled by the museum's European art curator, David Steel, the career-spanning exhibit includes more than 130 pieces, including woodcuts, lithographs, mezzotints, drawings and more, made between the 1920s and the 1960s. Said to be the most comprehensive Escher exhibit ever mounted in the U.S., it includes every iconic print I could think of and many that were new to me, as well as sketches, photo references, mathematical diagrams and sculptures that informed Escher's lucidly rendered spatial fantasies. Supplemented by video tutorials on his plate-making and printing processes, for which he used a bone spoon or rolling pin instead of the mechanical presses we have today, the exhibit underscores his work ethic and astounding technical skill.

The show overflows in two auxiliary projects: a collaborative effort between Raleigh Murals Project and David Eichenberger to paint Escher quotes on downtown buildings until the end of the exhibit, and Engineering Infinity, an interactive, immersive "infinity cube," created at the museum by N.C. State engineering students in response to both the Escher exhibit and the new Leonardo da Vinci show (see our story) with which it is bundled on a single ticket. Together, they form a blockbuster study of the transitional space where art meets science and math.

It's also a chance to reassess Escher in the context of a museum instead of ubiquitous coffee-table books and dorm-room black light posters, which have made us so incurious about him that I never paused to consider that M.C. might stand for something.

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