Do you believe in magic?
Probably not. Nor should you. But we all enjoy its elaborate illusions.
Art, too, is often an illusion, fooling your brain via your eye into thinking you're seeing something three-dimensionally when in truth you're looking at a two-dimensional painting, for example.
You'll find a different artistic sleight of hand at the Polk Museum in "Unbelievable Transformations: Moving Sculpture by Gregory Barsamian." His fantastical works harken back to the 19th century, proving that old can be new. Barsamian uses sophisticated versions of the various scopes that delighted and amazed people more than 100 years ago as mechanized flip books, forerunners to animation. He deploys strobe lights and still images attached to whirling armatures that create the sense you're experiencing a moving picture.
Walking into the darkened galleries is first like entering a fun house in which things spin and fly, casting beautiful shadows on walls. But this is art, so there's much more to the works than the gee-whiz factor.
Untitled, made in 2000, is set up on a circular armature fitted with a series of three-sided rooms made from paper, the image of a man at a drafting table painted like a framed portrait on one wall in each version. As the work turns, the man appears to crumple papers, which he throws through the frame and toward the viewer. They land on the floor of the room, roll around and disappear as other papers crawl like a worm, slithering up and down a wall. A calendar's pages change with each frame.
You have a disorienting, how'd-he-do-that? moment until you figure out that each room has been changed so that when the strobe light catches it on its orbit, the illusion of action is created, similar to stop-action animation. Thematically, the work is about being blocked creatively, combined with the notion that the rejected drafts take on lives of their own.
All the sculptures have the unifying idea of mortality, their seriousness mitigated by whimsy and sometimes wryness approaching irony. Postcards from the Fringe is also overtly political. It looks like a collection of picture postcards pinned to a cylinder. As the drum rotates, they tell their stories: A cruise ship on a sparkling blue sea is really sailing in a toilet bowl; a mall suddenly disappears into a vacuum cleaner tube; the White House shrinks; two gas tanks sitting atop a pastoral hill implode. (They were Brooklyn landmarks Barsamian photographed at their demolition. He said it reminded him of the day he watched the World Trade Center come down.)
Forty is constructed on a large ring suspended from the ceiling in a separate gallery. As you stand under it, birthday cakes circle and morph into Medusa, the candles changing into writhing serpents on the monster's head. Medusa was the Gorgon in Greek mythology whose glance could turn a human to stone, and the artist said he created this sculpture when he turned 40 (he's now almost 60) and felt himself staring down advancing age. It's the most personal sculpture and has the most direct message. But the shadows cast on the four walls are the best examples of the "borrowed landscape" element in the show and an allusion to Plato's cave allegory about reality and perception.
The newest and most complex sculpture is Five Stages of Grief, made this year. It's a new direction for Barsamian, who creates multiple layers of images made from paper tucked around and inside a globe-shaped armature. The five stages are represented by different markings on the papers, from tentative slashes to burnt edges. At the bottom, the papers are pure white and shaped like paper airplanes. They appear to float up in helix formation to the top, or beginning, layer, acceptance linked to its antithesis, denial. The sophisticated calibrations required to position the papers provide a sense of simultaneous movement in three dimensions, vertically and horizontally. It's just terrific.
This show is enormously entertaining and thought-provoking, something that can be enjoyed on many levels and by many ages. The still photographs you see here don't convey the true nature of the sculptures. For a preview, go to the museum's Web site, polkmuseumofart.org, click on exhibitions and the link for a brief video of Untitled. Or go to the artist's Web site, gregorybarsamian.com, for more examples.
Then visit the museum to see the real thing. Or the real illusion.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.