Double Take

Three painters featured in a new show use their illusion

A painter of prisons nestled amid earthly beauty; a painter of meticulous reproductions of works by old masters, with her own modern corruptions; and a photographer of images that look like commanding landscape oils but are really clever fakes -- three artists who specialize in illusion have been joined for Unreal, the new show at Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.

Sandow Birk's new work took him to every single prison in California -- 33 in all. He painted gorgeous oils of deserts, forests and streaming sunlight that have inspired comparisons with Bierstadt, except that Bierstadt never painted the prison compounds and guard towers in the distance. With such titles as "Correctional Training Facility, Soledad, CA," the paintings capture what Birk has called "the tarnished myth of California as eden." For the viewer, the juxtaposition of beauty and confinement is stark.

Kathleen Gilje's sense of humor and outrage couldn't be clearer in her corruptions of works by old masters. She likes to take the pompous down a notch by repainting works of noblemen done 400 years ago, adding such accessories as leather S/M gear, nipple rings, tattoos and, in one memorable work, an LA Raiders T-shirt. Her feminist anger comes through in other works, such as a portrait to which she has added the black eyes of a battered wife.

Kim Keever's work must be seen to be believed, but then, in his case, seeing is doubting. What look like majestic oil paintings of sea, mountains and clouds are actually photographs of a specially constructed 200-gallon tank filled with sand, dirt, plaster, liquids and inks, lit dramatically with colored lights. Some of his landscapes are out-of-this-world breathtaking, because they are not of this world but of his own fabricated, bottled, exotically detailed realm.