Erbe retrospective opens at Butler

The work of Gary Erbe is a familiar sight at the Butler Institute of American Art.

His painting “Baseball Album” permanently hangs in the museum’s Donnell Gallery of American Sports Art. His work has won awards at past Butler Midyear exhibitions, and he’s had two previous solo exhibitions there.

It is fitting that a 50-year retrospective of Erbe’s work will debut Sunday at the museum. The Butler organized the show, which will travel to other locations after it closes in August in Youngstown, and published the catalog, which Butler Executive Director Louis Zona described as more of a book on Erbe’s life and work.

The New Jersey-based artist and the Youngstown museum forged a relationship with the help of Maryland gallery owner Phil Desind, a loyal Butler supporter.

“When he came across the work of Gary Erbe, he told Gary, ‘You have to drive to Youngstown, Ohio, with me,'” Zona said. “I met them at Cafe 422 and then he came to the Butler, and it was the beginning of a nice relationship between the museum and an artist.”

The self-taught painter draws inspiration from the 19th century Trompe l’oeil artists, who created the illusion of three-dimensional work on a two-dimensional canvas. Erbe puts his own contemporary twist on the work by having the images appear as if they are floating, a style he calls “Levitational Realism.”

“We have several Trompe l’oeil 19th century paintings, the (William) Hartnett (1884’s “After the Hunt“) being the star, and Gary’s work seems to fit beautifully here,” Zona said. “His work is contemporary but also pays homage to the Trompe l’oeil painters of the past.

“His themes are always thought-provoking, whether it’s baseball or scary movies. Whatever you want is there in Gary Erbe’s work. If you like skill, it’s there. If you like ideas, the ideas are obvious. His work is very original. It has everything.”

“Gary Erbe: 50 Year Retrospective” features about 45 works. Zona assembled the show from images sent to him by the artist that were divided into different thematic categories. Zona picked the works that he thought best represented Erbe’s career with guidance from the artist.

“Gary gave import input on what works of art were transitional, what works of art were especially important to his career,” Zona said. “I was able to select a comprehensive look at Gary Erbe’s skill and artistic abilities.”

Erbe will not be in attendance for Sunday’s opening but he is expected to visit the Butler during the run of the show.