Larry Kagan uses light and steel wire to create striking images on a wall

A giant mosquito, six feet long, sprawls on the wall. On another wall, a woodpecker has perched. Oh,
Larry Kagan shines a light through what appears to be a random jumble of wire to create images in shadow. Shown is "Stiletto II."
Larry Kagan shines a light through what appears to be a random jumble of wire to create images in shadow. Shown is "Stiletto II."

A giant mosquito, six feet long, sprawls on the wall. On another wall, a woodpecker has perched. Oh, and look at the woman’s high-heeled shoe and a portrait of George Washington.

But look again. What you see is a shadow.

When viewers encounter Larry Kagan’s steel-and-shadow wall sculptures, they can’t believe their eyes.

“They don’t believe it’s shadows. They get upset. The first thing they ask is if you use a computer,” says Kagan. “You are seeing something happen and you are enchanted. It’s very interactive.”

This summer, The Hyde Collection is presenting the Capital Region’s biggest solo exhibit by Kagan, a conceptual artist and Troy resident who has been teaching art at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for 40 years.

‘Larry Kagan: Lying Shadows’

WHERE: Wood Gallery, The Hyde Collection Art Museum, 161 Warren St., Glens Falls

WHEN: Through Sept. 14. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 12 to 5 p.m. Sunday

HOW MUCH: $8; $6 for seniors. Free for children, students, active military families. Free second Sunday of each month.

RELATED EVENT: Artist Larry Kagan will give a talk at 2 p.m. Sunday, July 20.

MORE INFO: 792-1761, www.hyde

Twenty-eight of his sculptures, which are usually seen in Manhattan galleries or traveling to museums across America and Europe, are mounted on the walls of the Hyde’s main Wood Gallery this summer in the exhibit “Larry Kagan: Lying Shadows.”

Paired with the Kagan mini-retrospective is “Emerging from the Shadows: Edward Hopper and His Contemporaries.” Curated by Chief Curator Erin B. Coe, the exhibit explores how shadows play a role in five Hopper works and 20 other works by other early 20th century artists.

With Kagan’s sculpture, the disbelief occurs when one realizes that the source of the shadow is a beam of light hitting an abstract, three-dimensional tangle of steel wire.

Two weeks ago, during the installation of his work, the curly-haired Kagan, in a black T-shirt and jeans, paused to chat as a power drill buzzed holes in the gallery walls.

On one wall, the artist pointed out “Running Man,” a sculpture that appeared last year in “An Armory Show,” the Opalka Gallery exhibit curated by Troy artist Michael Oatman and Albany artist Kenneth Ragsdale.

“It looks like jumbles of steel without the light on,” says Kagan.

Oatman, a fellow RPI faculty member, has watched Kagan’s shadow work emerge over two decades.

“I love these works,” Oatman says in an email to The Gazette.

“They let every viewer be both a kid in wonder and feel really sophisticated at the same time,” he says. “And that first-time viewing feeling doesn’t fade when the light stays on — because he lets you go further inside the whole drawing. The steel integrates (or pushes away) the shadow . . . you marvel at his image choices as much as his handling of the material.”

For Kagan, who graduated from RPI with an aeronautical engineering degree in 1968 and then earned a master’s in fine art two years later from the University at Albany, the shadow work started in the 1990s when he was using steel wire to make drawings. As he put the wire on the wall, he noticed the shadow it created.

“How do you deal with shadows? The extra lines?” he asked himself.

Early efforts

The Hyde exhibit begins with these early shadow sculptures, which are smaller and less complicated, and help the viewer comprehend more recent works.

Kagan creates his sculptures on nights and weekends, about six to 10 a year, in his Troy studio.

His process starts with observing and thinking about the world around him.

“Mosquito #7,” a 2007 piece, emerged after he read a New York Times story about the irritating insects.

Manipulating the light and the wire, Kagan builds the shadow.

“It’s a long trial and error process,” he says.

Installing the sculpture in a gallery only takes a minute or two, although it requires walls that are extremely flat and clean.

“It starts off by positioning the light. The trick is to get it in the right place. The thing doesn’t exist until it lines up with the light,” Kagan says, as he and an assistant attach “Poodle” (2005) to the wall.

The light, a single low-voltage bulb shining from above, is simple, too.

“The paradox is that most lights are designed to minimize shadows,” he says.

As a conceptual artist, Kagan is more concerned about the ideas and perception of the piece than its aesthetic impact or materials.

“The shadow is like the score of a piece of music. The steel is more like the performance,” he says.

While he is involved with the steel, the viewer is focused on the shadow.

“You see no connection between the shadow and the object.”

His artist’s statement explains:

“We are more or less aware of the presence of shadows, since they tell us something about our environment, but we do not actually look at them — unless they call attention to themselves by some unfamiliar or unexpected behavior. My challenge was to induce viewers to actually look at the shadow rather than solely at the steel.”

The son of Holocaust survivors, Kagan was born in 1946 in a displaced persons camp in Germany. The family moved to Israel when he was 5, and to the United States when he was 13.

As a high-school student in the Bronx, Kagan was obsessed with studying and drawing the rock formations on the Cross Bronx Expressway.

At the University at Albany, one of his professors and major influences was sculptor Richard Stankiewicz, renowned for his work with rusted scrap metal.

While Kagan is well-known in the Capital Region, he is not a frequent exhibitor in the area.

His only other solo exhibit in our area was at Troy’s Fulton Street Gallery in 2006.

The Albany Institute of History & Art acquired its first Kagan work, “Flag with Clouds,” in 1988. The 1986 steel sculpture was the Institute’s purchase prize in the Mohawk-Hudson Regional. The museum has since added four more Kagan works to its collection.

“Kagan is a master storyteller who draws his images with steel,” says Albany Institute Executive Director Tammis K. Groft.

“Flag with Clouds” is among 30 artworks in the Institute’s current exhibit “Small and Seductive: Contemporary Art from the Institute’s Collection,” which runs through Sept. 28.

In 2011, three of Kagan’s shadow pieces were shown at Berkshire Community College’s Koussevitzky Gallery.

“Students, faculty, and community loved the pieces! They had never seen anything like it,” says Gallery Director Benigna Chilla.

Kagan’s sculptures prod viewers to expand their vision.

“When we look at subjects, we perceive objects at that moment without impact,” Kagan says. “But objects are active way beyond their physical boundaries. The entity includes all the shadows. Light has an entity. You begin to think about it. That there is something more that exists. You become more aware.”

“These sculptures are a model of memory,” says Oatman.

“The light is what jars you — and makes the image. But the fade is what we all experience over time. A Kagan drawing in steel and shadow is a beautiful metaphor for the strength of the human will, the delicacy of the human brain, and the persistence of the human spirit.”

Reach Gazette reporter Karen Bjornland at 395-3197 or [email protected]

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