Next Spring, Reed College hosts Feast the Eye, Fool the Eye, an exhibition of trompe l'oeil paintings spanning three centuries. As painted images that are designed to fool the eye, trompe l'oeil produce an incredible sequence of perceptive phenomena that short-circuit the very fabric of our eye-to-brain faculties. Like grabbing hopelessly at a 3-D movie, trompe l'oeil lead us to question our perception of reality and the trust we invest in sensory experience.

Then what? Frequently, audiences grow mistrustful and unimpressed. As Vik Muniz, an artist who explores visual perception, observed, after the first five minutes of Jurassic Park, the only way the filmmakers could scare the audience was to have the dinosaurs make sudden, startling appearances. Legend has it that when The Great Train Robbery premiered in 1903, audiences leapt out of the path of the charging locomotive. Today children walk out of 3-D Omnimaxes as unphased as if they had just watched an hour of television. Direct illusionism usually feels like a parlor game at best, a lame hoodwink at worst.

Still, the nature of visual perception is a fascinating and frequently wonder-inducing topic that is most effectively breached with the simplest of means. Watching Michel Gondry's music video for Gary Jules' cover of Mad World, viewers never suffer the delusion that they're seeing sailboats or singing faces. But in watching people represent forms by holding hands and moving their bodies, we are charmed not only by the hopefulness of the gesture but by the deceptive simplicity of the illusion. Before they became incredibly lame, Penn and Teller were fairly mind-blowing postmodernists who followed their sleight-of-hand trickery by revealing to audiences exactly how they had just been manipulated. Amazingly, this process didn't deflate the "magic" of the magic. Instead, it drew our attention to the boundaries of truth and belief, the limitations of vision, and the hardwiring of the brain that we take for granted.

Harry Houdini spent much of the second half of his career traveling with Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, debunking trick photographs and self-proclaimed spirit mediums. Perhaps the master of illusion had reached the same conclusion as Vik Muniz: "The problem with mysteries is that in the end they cease to be a mystery."