Throughout history — since Plato’s Republic and his parable of the cave, at least — the cast shadow has stood as a benchmark for what is real and what is not. In the Renaissance, the illusionist modeling of form, through the rendering of light and shadow on a depicted object, was perfected and became the predominant conceptual constant of painting, which it remained up until the advent of Modernism. The modern era saw the gradual disappearance of the shadow from painting, at the same time as stroboscopically projected shadows of nitrate on strips of celluloid took the central position in our collective visual attention.

“Devices of Wonder: From the World in a Box to Images on a Screen,” an exciting and ambitious new show at the Getty, traces the history of our ability to manipulate the flickering shards of shadow and light into images of ourselves and our world. Spectacular in a very literal sense, the exhibit documents the history of public displays of entertaining visual curiosities, from the Wunderkabinette, or Cabinets of Wonder — the portable precursors to natural-history museums — to early micro- and telescopic revelations that pushed the shadows back from the natural world. The exhibit also includes perceptual puzzles, anamorphic paintings that only resolve into perspective from certain angles; magic lanterns, shadow plays; automatons; panoramas; camera obscuras; and myriad other precursors to the Matrix as we have come to know and love it. Interspersed among these oddities is a wide sampling of contemporary artworks that refer in one way or another to the same ideas and technologies, running the gamut from superlative (Lucas Samaras) to the clunky (Suzanne Anker).

It‘s hard to know where to start in praising this show — it manages to be both tremendously entertaining and profoundly cerebral, and there’s a seemingly endless array of interactive exhibits just in time for holiday excursions with the family. But with the idiosyncratic intellect of Barbara Maria Stafford behind it (along with the Getty‘s Frances Terpak), it can be as rigorous as you want. There is the requisite series of events, including the debut of Museum of Jurassic Technology director David “Genius” Wilson’s long-awaited film Levsha: The Tale of a Cross-Eyed Lefty From Tula and the Steel Flea, and a wealth of cool gift-shop items.

The show divides itself between people‘s delight in seeing the previously unimagined (microbes, crocodiles) and in having their perceptions duped. The latter effect overlaps most clearly with the concerns of art. Exquisite engravings convey exaggerated 3-D or panoramic landscape effects or simulate the passage from daylight to darkness, using pinholes and variable backlighting. Such prints were usually displayed publicly for a paying audience, and were a widespread popular precursor of the cinema, as were sequences of magic-lantern slides (look for the Interior of the Bazaar at Kabul, Afghanistan) and shadow-puppet shows. While the exhibition is organized as a history of advances in entertainment technology, there is also a powerful current of allegorical significance underlying our fluctuating perceptual play with reality.

Two current exhibits at L.A. galleries dovetail neatly with this aspect of “Devices of Wonder.” Patty Wickman’s group of large-scale paintings at HunsakerSchlesinger reprises her earlier interest in hand shadows, and extends the symbolism of light and darkness into a new and powerful series of images. Wickman is an anomaly in the L.A. art scene — a masterful technician of both painting and drawing who uses these unfashionable talents not as a rallying cry against abstraction or conceptualism (or, as is most often the case, to produce tasteful, sanctioned soft porn for the rich), but as the vehicle for metaphorical images that are as intellectually complex and rigorous as any work now being produced.

In the three works in her current show, Wickman has moved beyond the staged theatricality and knowing reference to fragmentary Modernist space of earlier work toward a sort of cinematic naturalism, and focused even more intensely on her handling of the medium. The three works depict a boatful of pubescent girls about to get swamped by a giant wave, a panty-clad teen making a bird-shaped hand-shadow on her chest in her cluttered, vertiginously composed bedroom, and an old man standing in a garden, caked with mud and surrounded by wildlife, looking toward a great offscreen light. Wickman‘s brushwork continues to be simultaneously (and paradoxically) loose and precise, rendering subtle shifts of light and form with single layers of almost calligraphically gestural swaths of washy oil paint. Some areas in the new works are so light as to show the underdrawing, while others have been built up to a dense, clotted materiality. The attention to composition evident in the final works is given further witness by a plethora of incrementally varied preliminary sketches, though these have as much to do with the possible allegorical variations as with formalist precision.

Virtually all the sketches are for the hand-shadow picture Overshadowed, a work that seethes with layered symbolism, conflating the already allegorical Christian narrative (and Old School painting trope) of the Annunciation (the impregnation of the BVM with Jesus by the Holy Spirit in the form of a parakeet, or some such) with the awakening of the sexualized human identity in adolescence, and equating these with the act of picture making — a recurring motif in the history of painting has been the depiction of the invention of painting through the tracing of cast shadows. It is as elegant and gracefully self-reflexive an image as Robert De Niro as brokenhearted Noodles in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, off his crock in an opium den and hypnotized by a shadow-puppet play.

Tim Noble and Sue Webster are a pair of glam punks from England who have parlayed a literal trash aesthetic into a favored position with the heavyweight Saatchi collection and its colonial prefect, Larry Gagosian, in whose Western outpost their latest work may now be viewed. Their widely reproduced sculptures Miss Understood and Mr. Meanor (1997) and Dirty White Trash (With Gulls) (1999) were two of the few indications that refreshing new work truly emerged from the overhyped ‘90s U.K. art scene (if David Bowie says it’s authentic, it must be true: I‘m so sure!). Both consisted of piles of rubbish — empty food containers, mostly — which, lit with carefully focused lights, cast shadows that magically resolved into silhouettes of the artists in archly romantic “poses,” their severed heads skewered on spikes (if you can call that a pose) and reclining, occiput to occiput, with champagne and cigarettes. Either of these works, with their combination of optical gimmickry and populist sensationalism — and with the complex, if undeclared, philosophical inversion whereby the shadow becomes more true to reality than the object that casts it — would have been a brilliant addition to “Devices of Wonder.”

The artists’ first show in L.A. feels like something of a homecoming: Noble and Webster have long shared Los Angeles‘ obsession with all things Vegas. The title piece, Instant Gratification (all works 2001), retains the trompe l’oeil shadow effect of the rubbish heaps, but uses U.S. greenbacks instead. Housed in a “Perspex” arcade-style case, the gray-green blob resolves into a profile of the couple kissing; when a plastic token is dropped into the front of the sculpture, fans blow loose bills around the inside of the case, a vision that recalls both a “keep what you can grab” sideshow apparatus and that scene in Alex Cox‘s Sid and Nancy where the prototypical punk newlyweds swallow tongue as the trash rains down slo-mo around them. The other two works are dazzling Vegas-style signs made with strange, foreign-type light bulbs that cast their own intricate, seizure-inducing shadows — two dollar signs and a giant word: Forever.

How much of the complex meaning borne by shadows in contemporary art can be read back into the shadows of the magic lanterns and other precursors to contemporary filmmaking, television and the digital domain? We probably can’t accuse the collective social artists who developed Javanese Wayang shadow-puppet shows of referencing anything, but the psychological, spiritual and aesthetic potency of shadow and light seems to be a human universal. “Devices of Wonder” does a superlative job of connecting the dots across 500 years of technological innovation, but the real payoff remains in our hard-wired fascination with this constantly renegotiated binary balance. And the best contemporary art, including many of the works in the Getty exhibit, as well as the Noble-Webster and Wickman shows, demonstrates that 21st-century fine art can produce as meaningful — if not as bombastically all-engulfing — sensory experiences as the dominant contemporary visual media of television and cinema.

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