Animation lies at the heart of Gregory Barsamian's sculptural enterprise. With their three-dimensional constructions viewed as sequences keyed to a flashing strobe — think Claymation in the flesh — Barsamian's frenetic, kinetic sculptures cycle through brief narratives of a dozen or more steps. The illusions are compelling and the quality of fabrication is impeccable, while the mini-tales they tell range from the delightful to the quasi-political to the kinda gross.
Born in 1953, Brooklyn-based Barsamian is not young, but if his playful work is any indication, he's young at heart. He's also no stranger to Pittsburgh. His current exhibit at Wood Street Galleries, Gregory Barsamian: Memento Mori, was preceded by a solo exhibit there in 2003 and an appearance in a 2002 group exhibit there; a gallery staffer told me he's the most requested artist at Wood Street.
Barsamian has a well-defined artistic practice. For about 25 years, he's been producing elaborate sculptures utilizing the technique of the zoetrope, a 19th-century device (and precursor of cinema) in which one views a sequence of images to create the illusion of motion. The audience's initial engagement with Barsamian's work is typically, "How did he do that?" Yet, as with any good magic trick, even once you figure it out or have it explained to you (and from what I overheard in the gallery, few people do figure it out), it doesn't diminish the effect. As niches go, Barsamian's is broad enough to accommodate a lifetime of creative exploration.
Each of Barsamian's sculptures is a mechanical marvel, a sleight-of-hand and -eye that plays out in and around an armature — typically, a steel form resembling a metal rack or cage with the motor in view. Appended to it is a series of representational, somewhat comical forms, such as a bird or a human hand, which rotate on an axis such that the flashing strobe illuminates them in sequence. Barsamian crafts those recognizable forms in carefully stepped modifications, much the way that animated cartoons are created. The viewing experience is peculiar, as the flicker of the strobe and the rapidity of the transformation render it elusive, such that one sometimes strains to see just what is happening.
The illusion of movement might be Barsamian's stock-in-trade, but his real strength lies in wedding that illusion to a transformation. In Memento Mori, for instance, "Runner" (2008) is clever and amusing, with a tiny figure racing along the tip of a spinning circular saw blade. But "Untitled" (2000) holds one's interest longer, as an artist or writer seated at a desk crumples a paper, possibly an art review gone off-track, and tosses it toward the viewer, where it writhes around and is burnt up.
In the earlier works here, the audience-pleasing illusion of movement is offset by themes and subjects that seem willfully provocative. In "Corprophagia" (1991), a man tears pages from a book and eats them, while center stage, a sheet of newspaper deposits a turd which then evaporates. "Shuttlecock," also from 1991, features the nose of a fighter jet that morphs into a penis — an overly familiar Freudian trope, though not a farfetched one.
The more recent pieces tend to be more complicated, with narratives that are often ambiguous without being vague. "Five Stages of Grief" (2008) is an open sphere of curving steel that partially obscures the view of a progression so rapid that it's hard to identify all of the stages. Pieces of paper spiral up and around, transforming from a single sheet into a paper airplane and then into a crumpled ball, which is burnt up and re-emerges as a sheet of paper. Even as I strained to unpuzzle what I was witnessing, I wasn't frustrated by it, although with several pieces located in each of the gallery spaces, the lights, motion and, sometimes, noise can make you feel like you're inside a pinball machine.
The most compelling sculptures are the most surreal. In "Drum 52" (2013), we peer into a 55-gallon steel drum in which a hand drops a coin into liquid, where it splashes before bouncing back up as a ball that becomes a coin. In "Blue Shirt" (2013), a rotating group of shirts drops a paper bag from which falls an apple, which turns into a heart that morphs into a bird that flies back up into the shirts. At its best, as here, Barsamian's work is as irrational and elusive as a Magritte painting, toying with expectations and delighting in the unconscious.