Giovanni Morelli might be the most important art historian you’ve never heard of. That’s not surprising given that art historians rarely affect our daily lives.

If, however, you believe that you have a subconscious or that dream imagery is meaningfully tied to the residue of our real lives, then your understanding of the human mind owes a debt to Sigmund Freud, who was inspired by his fellow physician’s writings on art historical method.

Morelli’s breakthrough insight was that old masters could be identified best not by the big, obvious forms in their paintings but by the minutiae we usually overlook — like how an artist renders fingernails or ears. Morelli noticed that artists tend to repeat these details, and so he used them like clues for the detective, tracks for the hunter or symptoms for the doctor.

Morelli and his method exposed a whole bunch of fakes. And fakes — as well as the vocabulary of faking — are the subject of a fantastic exhibition, “False Documents & Other Illusions,” at the Portland Museum of Art.

This is another in the “Circa” series funded by Donald Sussman dedicated to showcasing Maine contemporary artists. So far, this is a phenomenal series.

“Illusions” is a wildly fun show that needs to be seen to be experienced. While it subtly introduces the ideas of Morellian connoisseurship, everyone can enjoy this show: Yes, bring your kids!

(Spoiler alert: Stepping off the elevator, I thought I missed the show because of the screws and holes in the wall where pictures had ostensibly been hung. But this is Susan Collis’ brilliant piece in which little holes are actually garnet chips, and the few screws are actually made of gold. “Paint drips” on her broom are really slivers of opal and pearl.)

I adore Carly Glovinski’s “plastic bags,” which are in actuality ink on tracing paper sculptures. I also particularly like the Yes Men’s copies of the New York Times declaring “Iraq War Ends” and Marti Cormand’s eight “cardboard” oil paintings.

It’s not by chance these artists are working with normally-overlooked details; they are fabulously effective. In the end, rather than talking down to us, these pieces remind us that, in general, we really are observant and that “the devil is in the details” — a phrase credited to several people with direct connections to Morelli.

Nina Katchadourian’s video document of “car alarms” that use actual bird sounds for six-tone car alarms is hilariously apt. To us, these sounds seem like the real thing. (They immediately took me back to my years in New York City.) But to several leashed dogs in the video, they reveal something completely different.

Vik Muniz’s simulacra backs of New York Times “photographs” and Grant Wood’s iconic painting “American Gothic” might sound like snobby jokes here, but they are clarion reminders of how we rely on back-end data. They reveal not only unseen images, but also vast troves of ideas about how we use and disseminate information about authenticity.

Molly Springfield’s “Index” is a compelling drawing of a book’s index, hinting of the illusion of authority in descriptive meta-data. Her rendering of the scene “drawn” by photography inventor William Talbot is a dazzlingly thought-exploding starting point for considering the motivation and implications of photography as “real.”

Mary Temple’s subtly elegant site-specific installation paintings look like projected shadows of plants through a window. The fourth-floor piece is apparent enough, but I had to ask the museum staff in order to find the piece on the first floor. (Hint: It’s just inside the elevator hallway).

It was a bit humbling, but it was another reminder of the excellence of the PMA’s front-line staff. (They really are one of the best aspects of our great museum.)

There are many other brilliant pieces in the show, such as Steve Wolfe’s ?ile Zola novel, “L’Oeuvre,” with an unfinished painting on its cover and Carl Haase’s brilliant chine colle bubblegum wrappers.

I could list others as well, but it would be wrong to leave out the kudos for the exceptional work of exhibition curator Sage Lewis. Word on the street is that Lewis is going to install the PMA’s upcoming Biennial. “Illusions” gives us all reason to expect something great.

I commend the Portland Museum of Art, the artists, Donald Sussman and Sage Lewis for “False Documents & Other Illusions.” This great show must be seen to be believed. 

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: [email protected]