The Illusionist: The Mind-Bending Installations of Artist Felice Varini


Felice Varini, "Orangerie du cha‰teau de Versailles," 2006 (Photo by André Morin)



"Orangerie du cha‰teau de Versailles" from a different perspective (Photo by André Morin)

Note: This is a guest post by Riley MacPhee, a regular contributor to the Johnston Architects Blog. Johnston Architects PLLC is a small architectural firm focusing on creative, innovative, and sustainable design throughout the West. You can see their designs and learn more about their work at the Johnston Architects website.


To walk into a space exhibiting the art of Felice Varini is to be confused. You’ll immediately notice vaguely geometric, monocolor shapes stretching and sprawling across the room, but you won’t be able to determine any kind of method to the apparent madness. Varini’s work looks like interesting, abstract art superimposed on an architectural space.

But if you walk around and explore the space a little more, you’ll start to notice that the shapes change as you move.  The more you move, and the more you stare at them, the more you’ll start to realize that there’s something you aren’t getting. But then, suddenly you’ll arrive at a spot where everything comes together with startling clarity, and you’ll realize that you’re looking at a brilliantly composed perspective work that seems to pop out of the scene and hover eerily in front of it.

Felice Varini, "Encerclement à dix," Chapelle Jeanne d'Arc/Centre d'Art Contemporain, Thouars, France, 1999 (Photo courtesy



Felice Varini, "Encerclement à dix," Chapelle Jeanne d'Arc/Centre d'Art Contemporain, Thouars, France, 1999 (Photo courtesy



Felice Varini, "Carré aux seize disques," Commande du ministère de la Culture et de la Communication, Centre national des arts plastiques, 2011 (Photo courtesy



Another perspective of "Carré aux seize disques," 2011 (Photo courtesy



Another perspective of "Carré aux seize disques," 2011 (Photo courtesy

Varini’s work is really the opposite of a stereogram: a series of unintelligible figures painted across three dimensions, that when seen in just the right way, flatten themselves into a mind-bending 2D shape.

Varini is a Swiss artist who currently lives in Paris, and has done dozens and dozens of these types of installations. He thinks of his works comprehensively, not just from the single point where they come together:

“The viewer can be present in the work, but as far as I am concerned he may go through it without noticing the painting at all. If he is aware of the work, he might observe it from the vantage point and see the complete shape. But he might look from other points of views where he will not be able to understand the painting because the shapes will be fragmented and the work too abstract. Whichever way, that is ok with me.”

Felice Varini, "Une ligne, mille et une droites," Musée Bourdelle, Paris, France 2008 (Photo courtesy



Felice Varini, "Tra il Pieno e il Vuoto (In the Fullness and Emptiness)" 2003 (Photo courtesy



Felice Varini, "Tra il Pieno e il Vuoto (In the Fullness and Emptiness)" 2003 (Photo courtesy



Felice Varini, "Tra il Pieno e il Vuoto (In the Fullness and Emptiness)" 2003 (Photo courtesy

“If you draw a circle on a flat canvas it will always look the same. The drawn circle will retain the flatness of the canvas. This kind of working is very limiting to me, so I project a circle onto spaces, onto walls or mountain sides, and then the circle’s shape is altered naturally because the ‘canvas’ is not flat. A mountain side has curves that affect the circle, and change the circle’s geometry. So, I do not need to portray complicated forms in my paintings. I can just use the simplicity of forms, because the reality out there distorts forms in any case, and creates variations on its own accord.”

“The same goes for colours. Usually I use one colour only, and the space takes care of altering the colour’s hue. For example, if I use one type of red colour on a mountain side, the result is many kinds of red, depending on the mountain’s surface and the light conditions. Sunlight will affect the different areas on the surface and the same red colour may become stronger or darker or clearer in certain areas, depending on how the sun rays hit the surface. The sky can be bright or dark. And if the surface has its own colour or a few colours then that will affect the red that I apply on it. So, I do not need to use sophisticated colours.”


Felice Varini, "Cinq Ellipses Ouvertes," Exhibition: Constellation, En attendant l'ouverture, du Centre Pompidou, Metz 2009 (Photo by André Morin courtesy


Felice Varini, "Archi e Corone" 2003 (Photo courtesy



Felice Varini, "Archi e Corone" 2003 (Photo courtesy

But the latest, and perhaps greatest, of Varini’s “paintings” is his work in the  village of Vercorin, in the Swiss Alps.  The project is called Cercle et suite d’éclats, and features around two dozen white circles superimposed on the beautiful old buildings.  Like most of his projects, Varini used a projector to display the image on the landscape, and then used a team of helpers to trace and paint the circles using a metalic paint.

The finished effect is stunning from a certain vantage point; the whole village is reduced to a two-dimensional space. These pictures hardly do the project justice though. Check out the official panorama view from Varini’s website to get the full, breathtaking effect.

Felice Varini, "Cercle et suite d'éclats," Exposition sur le village, Vercorin, 2009 (Photo courtesy



Felice Varini, Detail of "Cercle et suite d'éclats," Exposition sur le village, Vercorin, 2009 (Photo courtesy



Felice Varini, Detail of "Rectangle évidé par six disques," Vaduz, 2011 (Photo courtesy



Felice Varini, Detail of "Rectangle évidé par six disques," Vaduz, 2011 (Photo courtesy



Felice Varini, "Zigzag entre le cercle at la tour," Niigata Water and Land Art Festival, Niigata, Japan, 2009 (Photo courtesy

What I love about Varini is how he incorporates three-dimensional architectural and natural spaces into his art. It’s hard not to draw parallels between Varini’s work and the architectural projection mapping featured on the Johnston Architects blog back in April (Building Art: Bringing Architecture to Life). While the guys at URBANSCREEN turned essentially two-dimensional buildings into moving, three-dimensional sculptures, Varini paints the existing three-dimensional landscape, transforming it into a static, two-dimensional projection.

I also like the relationship between the immense scale of Varini works, and the incredibly precise vantage point at which they “come together.” The vast majority of Varini’s projects are abstract, but if you happen upon that one, unmarked, unremarkable coordinate, they become something else entirely. It’s like secret perspective embedded in an abstract landscape. It makes the viewer work to understand the piece, and develop a more intimate and personal relationship with the space. That, I think, is the real appeal and genius to Varini.

You can view photos of all of Felice Varini’s many projects on his website, although the site is in French – just click “Index Chronologique.”


Felice Varini, "Trois Triangles Bleus," Osaka, Japan, 2007 (Photo courtesy


Felice Varini, "Trois Triangles Oranges," 2001 (Photo courtesy

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This is a guest post by Riley MacPhee from Johnston Architects PLLC. Photographs selected by Riley MacPhee and Michelle Aldredge. All images courtesy Felice Varini’s website.


By | 2016-11-11T21:52:52+00:00 04.10.12|Greatest Hits, Images, Spaces|7 Comments

About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.


  1. Anna Dibble March 20, 2012 at 11:43 am

    Just shared it on FB. Never heard of this guy before, but really love what he is doing, and am glad to know about him. Thanks for posting.

    • Michelle Aldredge March 20, 2012 at 8:54 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Anna. Varini’s work was new to me as well. He’s been creating these ambitious paintings and installations for years. I don’t know how I missed him before?! This Swiss artist living in Paris is a fantastic discovery. I’m glad you enjoyed the work as much as I did.

  2. mimi graminski January 18, 2013 at 8:14 am

    Great to find and read your blog. I love the piece on Sol Lewitt and Eva Hesse. I sent the link to a dear artist friend who is a huge suppor to me who is oddly dealing with a brain tumor right now. The way you describe the relationship of SL and EH is so similar to thw one she and I have. Thanks for your writing.

    • Michelle Aldredge January 22, 2013 at 11:38 am

      Thanks so much, Mimi. I’m glad you discovered Gwarlingo! The Sol Lewitt letter is a real gem, isn’t it? Thank you for reading and for spreading the word.

  3. […] Image: Felice Varini, “Orangerie du cha‰teau de Versailles,” 2006 (Photo by André Morin) […]

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