Wiry artist sheds light on shadow exhibition

By Guy D'Astolfo

Thursday, September 24, 2009

By Guy D’Astolfo

YOUNGSTOWN — Larry Kagan’s metal sculptures appear to be typical abstract art. One might pause for a moment to ponder the spatial dimensions or shapes, wonder about its meaning, then move on.

But shine a light downward on Kagan’s works, and an amazing thing happens.

Another image is formed by the shadow, and it’s not at all open to interpretation.

For example, there’s an airplane, a basketball player, a chair, a book, a mosquito, a dog.

It’s the last thing you’d expect, and the surprise usually puts a smile on the viewer’s face. A frequent comment is, “I’ve never seen that before.”

An exhibition of Kagan’s work opened this week at the Butler Institute of American Art.

Kagan was at the museum last week supervising the installation. He explained how he developed his unique art form.

“I liked working with steel wires, but when I photographed it, I would get double lines from the shadows, and it bugged me,” he said. “I realized I had to get rid of the shadows ... but, eventually, I decided to instead incorporate them into the art.”

At first his shadow pictures were subtle; later, he made them immediately identifiable.

Kagan, of New York, creates his shadow art by starting with a simple pencil drawing on a wall. He then mounts the basic shape of his steel wire sculpture on the wall and shines a light on it, downward from the ceiling. Finally, he manipulates the sculpture until the shadow it throws traces the lines he’s drawn on the wall.

His works often elicit disbelief.

“Some people insist on turning off the light and then looking at the light bulb [because they think there is an outline superimposed on the bulb that creates the shadow art],” said Kagan.

The whimsical nature of the shadow art also impresses viewers. “When the light isn’t on, you can imagine how their brain works. They are looking at abstract art,” said Kagan. “Then the light goes on, and they see the shadow and they laugh.”

The mere notion of abstract sculpture throwing a shadow that is a simple line drawing is what makes it so memorable.

Kagan said there are only a couple of other artists in the world who work with shadows, but none who do what he does.

And his creations are getting ever more clever. He has started to give his shadows their own shadows by using thinner wires, as can be seen in his mosquito.

Kagan’s exhibition, titled “Object/Shadow: Installations of Steel and Light,” is just one of several new exhibitions at the Butler. The others include the scholarly works of Jasper Johns, who is considered the greatest living artist, according to Lou Zona, director of the Butler; holograms by Mary Harman; and the giant watercolors of flowers by Joseph Raffael.