2.4 / Review

From Los Angeles: Safe/Vanish

By Blanka Earhart October 21, 2010

”In a world that is truly upside down, the true is the moment of the false.” This is the motto of Glenn Kaino’s show Safe/Vanish, on view at LA><ART, in Los Angeles. The works in the show mark a new direction in Kaino’s practice and aim to explore fruitful parallels between magic and art. A couple of years ago, Kaino found himself drawn to magic in a way that inspired him to take formal classes from magic master Shoot Ogawa. The encounter with professional magicians transformed his relationship with art and informs this new body of work.

Safe/Vanish, installation view, LA><ART, Los Angeles, 2010; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Artist and LA><ART, Los Angeles. Photo: Kelly Barrie.

Safe/Vanish isn’t magic, but magical. The show’s centerpiece, Kage No Gundan #1 (Graft) (2010), is a formal salute to Robert Rauschenberg: a taxidermy goat made of alligator skin. Kaino seamlessly merges these two creatures, appealing to viewers’ imaginations and suspending their disbelief. The increasing casualness with which American culture treats plastic surgery and body augmentation inspires a view in which a marriage of any two living organisms becomes a matter of aesthetic choice. This application of a foreign surface to a given body brings to mind the treatment of avatars in virtual worlds; digital environments groom us to feel comfortable with the notion of mutability and hybridization, providing one-click solutions that encourage our whims. With the help of a viewer’s imagination, Kaino physically materializes the digital idea of re-skinning.

Juxtaposed with Kage No Gundan #1 (Graft) is a portrait of magician Ricky Jay made with playing cards. The way that the cards are affixed to the wall allows viewers to see Jay’s face only from a specific angle. When one is positioned properly in the space, the magician’s face, gaze directed at the goat-gator, comes to focus out of a cloud of cards. There is an element of play involved in looking at this piece; at first, it is unclear how one should look at the cards, and viewing them closer only confuses the matter. But wandering through the gallery and occasionally glancing at the swarm of cards finally allows a viewer to understand the piece’s secret. The portrait of the magician patron presiding over the space gives additional clues for viewing the show—the discovery of meaning in this environment is enabled by visual and conceptual shifts performed by the viewer both mentally and physically; the art is constituted as much by the viewer as the works themselves.

Kaino suggests that the process through which art asserts meaning is parallel to the process of performing and viewing magic. One of the gallery walls displays Wands Bygone (2010): rows of magic wands complete with an inscription plaque dedicated to different conceptual artists. Each wand is made out of materials characteristically used by the artist. The inscriptions laud each artist’s contribution to art viewed through the prism of magic; for example, the wand dedicated to Joseph Beuys is made of felt. In a similar gesture, a light box sculpture near the entrance depicts John Baldessari as Baldessarini, the conceptual magician. With these works, Kaino rewrites art history by applying the lexicon of magic and providing a fresh perspective of well-established interpretations of art.

In Safe/Vanish, art and magic have another feature in common: they both house secrets. A magician never reveals his techniques, since the illusion is hinged on a hidden element; art doesn’t immediately divulge its contents, either. Rather, it unfolds layers of meaning through various associations and perspectives, leaving unrevealed areas up for interpretation and questioning. In recent months, Kaino collected secrets from different individuals in the form of taped confessions. All the participants were assured that the recordings would be never released or listened to, and the tapes are locked in a safe that is on view in a separate room of the gallery. The safe, located in the middle of the space, can be fully circled and its surface examined; a red velvet drape hung on the back wall creates an aura of magic performance, while the safe’s weight exhorts a presence in the room. Here, the safe becomes the performer, tantalizing the viewer with its hidden secrets.

Wands Bygone, 2010; mixed media, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Artist and LA><ART, Los Angeles. Photo: Kelly Barrie.

Finally, a work made out of newspaper hung directly on a gallery wall verbalizes the riddle addressed in the show. The paper is cut to assert, “In a world that is truly upside down, the true is the moment of the false.” The pages chosen for this piece feature articles on eccentric historical phenomena that could be deemed unbelievable, while the negative space made by the cutouts provides a reversed reflection of the upright sentence. By evoking the maxim that “truth is stranger than fiction,” Kaino directs a viewer’s attention to any preconceived notions of what is real and what is imaginary. The artist plays a topsy-turvy game with the audience, where illusion and imagination carry as much importance as reality and what is perceived as the solid world.

To join Kaino in his journey means to suspend disbelief and enjoy the slippage of one paradigm into another. After all, art—just like magic—conjures up meaning out of what seems to be thin air. Kaino is interested in the process of making meaning and the social contracts that come to be as its result. His works point to the fact that the location of meaning is often elusive—as in the case of the safe, whose contents we can never empirically confirm. Kaino weaves in and out of spaces where meaning is intermittently confirmed and suspended, and following him leaves one with a sense of wonder and anticipation of undiscovered possibilities.



Safe/Vanish is on view at LA><ART, in Los Angeles, through October 30, 2010.

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