The Modern-Day Da Vinci, Master Artist
By Steven Joseph
If it looks like one of the Seven Deadly Sins is coming through the floor, don’t be alarmed. You aren’t hallucinating, you’re experiencing the artwork of Master Painter Kurt Wenner. Kurt specializes in “anamorphic”, or 3-D pavement art, a relatively new form of work which uses a special form of geometry to appear as if it is rising from, or sinking into, the surface upon which it is displayed. The piece shown below is called “Gluttony,” and was painted on the floor of the Palazzo Te, in Mantua, Italy. But Wenner is no one-trick pony. Kurt is truly a modern-day Da Vinci, perfecting a multitude of art forms, including architecture, sculpture, and traditional two-dimensional paintings.
From Spaceships to Open Spaces
Wenner first started as an artist at the Rhode Island School of Design. After college, Wenner found employment at a non-traditional venue for artists. “NASA needed to have artists to draw their projects. I might have been the last person to hold this job, as rudimentary computer graphics were first coming into use at the tail end of my time there.” While in school, he was told he had a horrible eye for the human form, and resolved to learn to draw better. “I might have been one of the worst amongst my peers, but all of my peers as a whole were poor when compared to the Renaissance artists of the 1500s.”
Denied entry to a formal Rome program for study, Wenner decided to make his own way. Wenner busked the streets of Europe as a street painter in order to fund his travels, learning and practicing various techniques along the way. In Italy, the tradition of painting in the streets dates back hundreds of years. Artists would re-create images of The Madonna and admirers amongst the street traffic would leave coins placed directly on the image as an homage to both the religious figure and the talents of the painter. The term modannari was created to refer to these street artists and Wenner quickly honed his craft on the streets of Rome to sustain himself.
A Master Painter
Wenner then began testing himself in competitions against other artists, winning several gold medals along the way and eventually earning the title “Master Painter.” Around the same time, Wenner began experimenting with projecting three-dimensional images onto the two-dimension surfaces he was painting. The anamorphic art required Wenner to invent his own mathematics to calculate the dimensions of the objects he wanted to paint.
“Linear perspective stops at 90 degrees, the images I create show a viewing angle of 120 degrees or more,” explained Wenner. Kurt compares the mathematics he uses to the ancient practice of entasis in columns, where columns are curved to create the illusion that negative space between the columns is rectangular. “They teach you that it is a correction to the columns, so the columns themselves don’t appear curved, but it actually has to do with the visual effect of the areas between the columns,” he elaborated. In 1986, National Geographic aired a documentary on Wenner and his art entitled Masterpieces in Chalk.
After the success of the National Geographic film, Wenner began to receive commissions for his projects and started creating permanent installations on ceilings or in the lobbies of buildings and churches. “I don’t accept the idea of permanence really well,” Wenner said. “There is a generational gap where today’s youth are more about collecting experiences than things. I don’t know that art will be bought and sold in the same way it used to be. People just aren’t hanging art on their walls anymore.” Wenner believes that what gives something so much value is its uniqueness and its collectability. But with his artwork, the real permanence is the digital file. So for Wenner, the focus is on the journey, rather than the destination. “Sometimes the pieces for me are more a memory of the experience when I look at the pictures. One likes to have good pieces, but it’s the ongoing challenge of doing it that’s more important.”
A Renaissance Man
“When I began offering my services as a muralist in Santa Barbara in the ’80s, I found out that nobody could design, sculpt and cast architectural details, so I began to offer that service too,” Wenner said. From there he quickly moved on to proportioning facades and floor plans for architectural firms, and eventually found himself sculpting, as well. “I started with decorative designs, and ended up creating full figurative sculptures,” Kurt elaborated. Wenner feels his architecture and sculptures are rooted in a larger exploration of classical design, creativity and geometry. “I often find it’s easier to create completely original designs than to correct flawed ones.”
These days Wenner travels all over the world creating commercial installations, but every now and then he’ll get the opportunity to reference his roots. “When I first came to the U.S. to spread the 3-D art-form, I came from Italy where it was practically obligatory to do religious iconography, to a place where it was almost illegal. And I moved from the church to classical mythology. Once I started to get commissions, it became about featuring the assets that people have, whether it be a vehicle or a movie or a product. Fortunately, I still get commission opportunities from churches and get to create religious pieces.”
Although his career started in the streets of Italy, Wenner now says some of his best experiences have come on another continent altogether. “Nowadays, I very much enjoy Asia and the Middle East. I’ve recently visited some exotic locations like Shanghai and Dubai. One of the things about Asia is quite a bit of the country still works with their hands. And I think that makes the audience more able to relate to the work that I’m doing.”
Even though Wenner got his start re-creating the works of Renaissance masters, for Kurt, there is real pleasure in creating something unique. “I’m fascinated with the idea of icons, these images and ideas which travel through centuries and change and evolve.” By creating his own art form, Wenner has transformed the art landscape in such a way that his pieces and their display is truly one-of-a-kind. Wenner surmises, “Originality is what it’s all about in the end.”
To see more of Kurt Wenner’s work, visit kurtwenner.com