ST. PETERSBURG — While nothing can really be mind-bending in the literal sense, the latest exhibit at the Salvador Dali Museum comes pretty close.
Dubbed “Marvels of Illusion,” the collection causes observers to switch on a neurological mechanism that allows them to draw two diverging conclusions from a single image. The exhibit, which opens today and runs through Oct. 12, brings in work from one of the first artists ever to employ illusion. It also invites fans to take part in one of Dali's most famous illusions through an app. The exhibit is on display in tandem with one at MOSI in Tampa that uses Dali's work to draw the connection between science and art.
“All of art, as you know, is an illusion,” said Hank Hine, the museum's director, during a preview of the exhibit. “Every inch on canvas or on a piece of paper or board is a distortion and an attempt to seduce you to feel that the world is actually assembled there before your eyes, three-dimensionally.”
What distinguishes this collection is that each piece intentionally uses ambiguous imagery, which looks like one thing from one vantage point and something totally different from another perspective — like the young girl/old hag illusion.
At the center is Dali's “Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea.” One of Dali's better-known pieces, it portrays Dali's wife, Gala, gazing out of a window, but only for those looking at it in close range. From 20 yards away, most will see a blurry, pixilated portrait of Abraham Lincoln.
There's an app being unveiled in conjunction with the exhibit that likely will become a permanent installation for the museum. Called “Gala Contemplating You,” it allows members of the public to snap a selfie on their phones or on an iPad at the museum, and within minutes pixilates the image and places it where Lincoln's is in the original.
“Anyone can do it anywhere,” said Jeff Goodby, a member of the museum's board of directors. “It's amazing.”
Goodby's San Francisco-based ad agency, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, developed the app. The agency is behind viral marketing campaigns like Got Milk? and the “largest human Dorito chip” at this year's Super Bowl.
He said he was discussing the upcoming exhibit with some of his 20-something employees, and they were particularly intrigued with the Lincoln painting.
“They had never seen it before,” Goodby said. “And so they ran away and came up with this idea.”
For the exhibit's curation, the Dali brought in experts in fields such as neurology to explain what's happening in the brain when it sees an ambiguous image, say, Dali's use of landscapes that, from far away, look like facial features.
“We have a tendency to see faces in everything,” Hine said. “We're genetically programmed to do that. But when we see a landscape, there's another fold in the brain that registers this.”
A work of one of the first painters to incorporate illusion will also be on display, courtesy of the Ringling Museum of Art. Giuseppe Arcimboldo was a 16th century artist whose paintings from far away look like portraits but close up are fruits, vegetables or animals arranged to look like a human face.
“Marvels of Illusion” runs in the middle of a particularly good year for the Dali. Before it was on display, a collection comparing the work of Dali and pop art innovator Andy Warhol helped the museum attract thousands during high season. In the fall, works by Pablo Picasso go on display in a show that will illustrate the dialogue between the two Spanish artists.