Some self-portraits are done in oil. Other artists use watercolors, or charcoals, or sculpt their images in marble.
Larry Kagan doesn’t bother with any of that. Instead, his portrait is made of shadows. It emerges when light is thrown on a tangle of metal rods under the proper conditions and at the proper angle. Pull the plug, or shift the rods around, or reposition the bulb, and the self-portrait disappears.
Most people have seen shadow puppetry: animals or other figures projected on a blank wall through the clever positioning of the performer’s fingers. Kagan’s art shares something with that parlor game. Yet his work, which is currently on display in the Special Exhibition gallery at the Montclair Art Museum, is much more than mere illusion. These shadows of his have remarkable substance. What they lack in physicality, they make up for in emotional and aesthetic heft.
“Impossible Shadows: The Art of Larry Kagan,” which will be on view at the museum until Jan. 5, isn’t just a testament to Kagan’s near-superhuman sense of spatial relations. It also presents Kagan as an artist of genuine sensitivity, a true painter in light and shadow, a ponderer over the relationship between presence and absence, a reveler in the bright mysteries of illumination.
Kagan is also a showman, and much like a good magic act, “Impossible Shadows” prompts disbelief. Visitors to the show should brace themselves for a genuine visual surprise — a rarity in a museum landscape where the effects of artworks on display are often all too predictable. Kagan’s shadow-work is so elaborate, detailed and, in some cases, lifelike, that at first glance it’s hard to accept that the lines aren’t painted on the wall. The thick nests of black steel bear no resemblance to the shadow-images they conjure. They’re an unrecognizable foreign tongue, and the beam of white light is the translator.
Is all this legerdemain a little cheesy? Surprisingly, it isn’t. Kagan’s artwork broadcasts intellect and elegance, and that goes for the shadow-paintings and the curved, nest-like sculptures too. If the dedicated lights didn’t shine and the shadows were never projected, this would still be an abstract show worth seeing. But the interplay between the thick metal swirls — like cartoon depictions of fevered thought — and the stark, lucid images on the wall gives this show rare depth and re-viewability. This is the sort of art that you can’t help but linger over: first, to try (and fail) to figure out how Kagan has managed the effects that he has, and then to take in the resonances of the designs and portraits he’s thrown on to the blank white walls.
In time-honored artistic tradition, Kagan paints those he admires. There are two shadow-paintings of Barack Obama in the show, and they do manage to capture the ex-president’s sense of gravity and reserve, and underscore the honesty of his gestures and expressions. A shadow-painting of Andy Warhol peers out from one wall; a homage to Keith Haring decorates another. These points of reference are telling: Kagan shares Warhol’s playfulness and suspicion of excess adornment, and Haring’s absolute faith in the line. Even the self-portrait is, upon reflection, done in the guise of the prophet Jeremiah, the most blunt and forthright of the visionaries in the Old Testament.
Kagan is not a riddler. He’s a physicist at heart — he teaches art at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. — and it’s possible to see his work as a metaphor for scientific discovery. The light that shines on the confusing tangles of cable teases out the meaning and cogency in what initially appears to be chaos. There’s a simple, intelligent design hidden in the dark scramble of reality, and it’s possible to see it if you look at it correctly.
Bump the light or move the statue, however, and all that coherence drains away. As any scientist will tell you, discoveries are tenuous things, and impermanence lurks between the broad and definite black lines of Kagan’s shadow-paintings. The complex images of faces and human figures amaze, but some of the best pieces in this thoroughly appealing show are the simplest: a shoe, a chair, a flower, an open box, a teacup. These are breakable objects — things that can and do take damage — and their rendering in shadow form makes their humility palpable. The teacup, in particular, is such a straightforward design that it’s nearly possible to discern which curved rod corresponds to which shadow-squiggle on the saucer.
Elsewhere, that sort of easy legibility is tough to locate. One of Kagan’s most jaw-dropping tricks is his ability to coax straight lines from a fierce knot of metal curves. How can a beam of light transmute an artful lump of cables into a thing capable of generating shadows in right angles? How can shadows cast by solid objects produce an effect akin to shading and chiaroscuro? Kagan’s work doesn’t give up that secret so easily. Instead, it challenges us to think differently about perception, and illumination, and the unreliability of appearances.
It may open you to the possibility of a secret order lurking in the depths of the most confounding and chaotic tangles. It will surely guarantee that you never look at shadows the same way again.
“Impossible Shadows: The Art of Larry Kagan” will be on display at the Montclair Art Museum through Jan. 5; visit montclairartmuseum.org.
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