Innovative artist Gregory Barsamian on display at Wood Street Galleries
Hands down, the most dazzling exhibition on display in conjunction with the Three Rivers Arts Festival is “About Time: Works by Gregory Barsamian.”
Barsamian is the Brooklyn-based artist whose piece “The Scream” stunned visitors to the exhibition “Moving Images (Portraits)” at Wood Street Galleries, Downtown, in early 2002.
“He’s back by popular demand,” says Murray Horne, Wood Street’s director, “because all of the kids that came in to see that exhibition said you have to show that guy again.”
It’s easy to understand why when you see his works — four of which are on view at Wood Street Galleries. And even though today is the official closing day of the arts festival, Barsamian’s solo exhibition will remain on view there for another month.
Barsamian calls his multimedia constructions “transfigurations,” but what they really are cannot fully be described and are better left to be experienced.
In essence, they are kinetic sculptures that come alive before the viewer’s eyes as three-dimensional animations.
“They’re three-dimensional animation but not what people commonly refer to these days as 3D animation in computers,” Barsamian says.
For example, in the piece “Lather,” numerous sculptural objects ranging from pairs of hands washing themselves to paper bags, eggs and heads, all made of urethane foam rubber, are arranged, top to bottom respectively, on a large, cylindrical armature. As the armature rapidly spins, thanks to a motor at its base, it is illuminated by two strobe lights.
Moving at 13 revolutions per second — slightly slower than the speed of movie film — the objects become animate. The hands wash themselves, from which the resultant lather drips and falls into a paper bag. The bag turns over, and out of it falls an egg that plops onto the head and breaks open.
Because it happens in three dimensions right before the viewer’s eyes, the effect is jarring, to say the least.
In our high-tech world, Barsamian’s works are welcomed low-tech wonders.
Barsamian likens what occurs with them to a homemade flipbook that a child could make.
“As each object rotates in front of you, the strobe light is triggered to fire and gives you an image. The next one rotates into position and then, flash, another image, flash, another image. Just like the pages of a flipbook flipping by giving you image after image. Each image is slightly different, just as in an animation.”
While studying philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, the artist became intrigued with Nietzsche’s belief that, in a world without absolute truths, artists are uniquely free to invent their own worlds.
He then became a sculptor who, as a self-described “motorhead” intrigued by film animation, began fooling around 12 years ago with one of the earliest forms of animation, the zoetrope.
The zoetrope is a 19th-century invention in which a slotted metal drum, open at the top, revolves around a central axis. Inside are placed a sequence of pictures on strips of paper. When the drum is spun and the pictures are viewed through the slits, the images appear to move.
Instead of placing images inside of one of the first drums he constructed, Barsamian placed paper cutouts on the outside. For the cutouts, he traced the projected frames of a Super-8 film he made of a friend walking.
“Then I synchronized a strobe light to it, and wasn’t too surprised that, certainly enough, the little cutouts were walking,” Barsamian says.
“That’s when it dawned on me that the objects could have depth. They didn’t have to be two-dimensional images. That was my moment. That got me excited — the idea of being able to create a narrative in real time and with three dimensions.”
Though that opened up a world of possibilities, Barsamian realized that his newfound art form was inherently restricted, in terms of time, by the size and scale that his sculptures could take.
“I’m restricted by the fact that my timeline has to occur within one revolution of a cylinder,” Barsamian says of his sculptures, which he likens to films. “If I could make one a city block long, I’d have a 10-second film, maybe even a minute.”
But even with those limitations, he has managed to create some complex works. Works like “No, Never Alone,” which he named after a Baptist spiritual. In the piece, a central shrouded figure stands inside a cylindrical armature. On the revolving armature, sculptures of hands dangling carrots and holding eye charts and opened books that reveal images of a man doing a “blind dervish dance” all “taunt” the figure, says the artist.
The other two works on display are a bit less complicated, but just as magical. In “Forty,” a birthday cake mutates into a Medusa-like head, its candles becoming wriggling snakes, as it spins 12 feet above the floor.
Standing under the vortex-like center of the ceiling-mounted piece, Barsamian, now 50, says of “Forty,” which he created in 1993 on the eave of his 40th birthday: “Do you have any idea what I felt about my 40th birthday?”
And lastly, proving once again that he is not without a sense of humor, Barsamian created “Postcards from the Fringe,” which is a revolving postcard rack of sorts that features numerous spoof postcards he designed with colorful images of what he calls “environmental catastrophes” like the shrinking of the White House to the size of a shoebox or the sinking of a Circle Line cruise ship into the whirling water of a toilet bowl.
“No offense to the Circle Line, a venerable old institution in New York and quite a lot of fun,” Barsamian says with a smile.
This exhibition is a must-see.
‘About Time: Works by Gregory Barsamian’