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Gregory Barsamian
Sculpture; Kinetic Sculpture
(Chicago, Illinois, 1953 - )

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Gregory Barsamian’s engaging kinetic sculptures and installations present surreal juxtapositions of images in a protocinematic format that tap into the deepest levels of the unconscious. Employing 19th-century “stop-action” technology, he sculpts disparate objects in combinations that would make perfect sense if seen in a dream. Too low-tech to be considered electronic art, and too content-laden to be linked with kinetic art, Barsamian’s work gives tangible substance to figments of the imagination from the murky depths in which they lurk. Using a rapidly flashing strobe light, the sculptures appear to undergo a seamless transformation—faces mutate, lizards appear in a pair of hands and then disappear. The light flashes with frequency sufficient to provide the illusion of movement, and the viewer is swept into a mystical environment created by Barsamian’s wizardry.

Growing up outside of Chicago in Skokie, Illinois, Barsamian had an early interest in auto mechanics, influenced by his father’s passion for taking apart old cars. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, studying physics and philosophy. In the early 1980s, Barsamian moved to Brooklyn, New York, and by the end of the 1980s he was creating work based on zoetropes and other pre-celluloid moving-picture techniques.

Putti was created only two years after Barsamian began working in his trademark style. He initially conceived the installation while on the roof of his building, watching helicopters across the East River land on a helipad. He made the uncommon observation that they looked almost like cherubs or angels of the sort seen in Renaissance paintings. The viewer experiences Barsamian’s installation in a darkened room, illuminated only by a flashing strobe light. The image depicted is that of a baby with angel wings, seemingly metamorphosing into a helicopter. Barsamian created the piece by first sculpting 16 objects from clay, including three helicopters, three putti, and two each of five intermediate states between the cherub and the helicopter. The objects are attached to steel cables and spin around the darkened room while the strobe light flashes approximately ten times per second. Although the eye sees what are essentially still images, the mind fills in the spaces between flashes, and the illusion is seamless. Putti is one of three Barsamian works that operate on a single revolution, meaning that the image must unfold by the time the sculpture spins around the room only once and over a time span of merely one and a half seconds.

The inexplicable combination of angel and helicopter suggests a visible interface between the conscious and unconscious mind, and indeed, this topic has preoccupied the artist for years. He has grown tired of what he terms the “chauvinism of consciousness,” and has taught himself to resist the mind’s impulse to explain everything, to make a coherent story from nonsensical data. Barsamian demonstrates that while the senses take in a torrent of information, our consciousness is capable of absorbing only a fraction of this input. Thought involves the unconscious discarding of information; yet this sensory data is a vital and valuable part of ourselves.1 Putti, like all of Barsamian’s work, serves to illustrate this philosophical principle; it demonstrates the manner in which his dreamlike, surreal images can resonate on a profound level, far beyond what the mind is capable of grasping. —J.N.

1. See Danish author Tor Nørretranders’s 1991 book, The User Illusion: Cuttting Consciousness Down to Size, trans. Jonathan Sydenham (New York: Penguin, 1998). (SJMA Selections Publication, 2004)

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