THE BLOG
01/17/2013 02:18 pm ET | Updated Mar 19, 2013

The Artist as Magician and Trickster

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Have you ever watched a magician perform an amazing trick and then, with confidence and even bravado, reveal the mechanisms behind his trick?

If that is not enough, he gives a repeat performance and, though now you know the secret, you still find yourself buying -- wholeheartedly -- into his magic once more.

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Over the last weekend, I saw and admired the work of three artists, whom I would describe as magicians and tricksters. Let me start with Israeli artist Zadok Ben-David (now living in London), whose work is currently on display at Santa Monica's Shoshana Wayne Gallery. A few years ago, he covered the gallery floor there with a thick layer of sand and plunged into it 12,000 flat metal sculptures in the shape of various plants. Seen from one side, the installation appeared as a colorful, blossoming field. From the opposite side it looked mournful -- each flower painted matte black.

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In his current exhibition, Ben-David presents "The Other Side of Midnight," a nine-foot wide metal sculpture suspended from the ceiling of a darkened gallery and lit to maximum dramatic effect with black light. From a distance, the sculpture gives the impression of a three-dimensional sphere but, upon approach, it reveals itself to be a flat disc. One side consists of hundreds of brightly painted, cutout images of human bodies with butterfly wings. The opposite side of the disc is made of hundreds of cutout images of slightly repelling insects, painted in deep blue. The whole experience makes you feel a bit like you're at a theatrical performance. Act one reveals a beautiful world full of color and promise, only to be followed by act two with its dramatic and even tragic undertones, reminding us of our own fears and mortality.

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Upon entrance to Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills, you are confronted by two very large tour de force sculptures by Jeff Koons. The first, in the shape of a standing gorilla, looks rather aggressive. Your first impression is that it's an oversized version of a child's toy, cast from cheap black plastic. When you learn that it's been carved from a single block of black granite and weighs several tons, you are filled with surprise and genuine wonderment at yet another successful trick from master magician Koons. But, unfortunately, this feeling doesn't last. His other sculpture on view, "Coloring Book," is another matter. It appears to be made of translucent material -- you could swear that your eye travels straight through -- but you've been tricked! It's made of polished, reflective chrome, and even after you learn the true nature of the work, your eyes still can't believe what your brain tells you. This is the first time in many years that I have encountered a work by Jeff Koons that has fully engaged me.

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Truth be told, the main reason I went to the Gagosian was to see the exhibition of new sculptures by Frank Gehry. Throughout his long, illustrious career as an architect, Gehry has never abandoned his passion for making sculptural objects. Here, in a large, darkened gallery, there are a dozen or so graceful (though far from precious) sculptures in the shape of twisting and flying fish, each one made from roughly broken pieces of formica. Each fish has a light inside it, so it can be used as a lamp. Expensive, a very expensive lamp indeed, but boy, it's worth it.

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There is a well-known story about Frank Gehry as a child, watching a live fish jump in the family bathtub before being cooked for the traditional Sabbath dinner. Some childhood impressions stay with us for a lifetime. If you have ever seen Gehry's Bilbao museum, you will recognize the reference to fish scales in its iridescent, titanium skin. This iconic building always makes me think of a beautiful mermaid emerging from the waters.

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So, if you're in the mood for some smart, interesting tricks spiced with a little bit of magic, see the work of these three artists who, like the proverbial Magi, come bearing gifts.

Edward Goldman is an art critic and the host of Art Talk, a program on art and culture for NPR affiliate KCRW 89.9 FM. To listen to the complete show and hear Edward's charming Russian accent, click here.