Magical Realism

Magicians—from dreadlocked Wiccans to Harry Houdini—inspire several new shows.

Sarada Rauch's Pile of Demon Heads, 2009, was in "Magicality" at Seattle's Platform Gallery.

Sarada Rauch's Pile of Demon Heads, 2009, was in "Magicality" at Seattle's Platform Gallery.


William Powhida once made a drawing that put the artist himself up for sale. The price would be a mere €150,000, plus “a little land in South America,” he said. No one bit (yet), but the piece netted him an admirer, who enabled a performance last May, Surviving the Art World Using the Art of Sorcery, at Hyperallergic, a publisher and events producer in Brooklyn. This, Powhida says, is proof of art’s magic, which is powerful and impossible to control precisely.

Powhida isn’t the only artist interested in magic. He and artist Eric Trosko found several to include in a summer group show, “Magicality,” at Platform Gallery in Seattle. “Eye Spy, Playing with Perception,” a survey of illusionism in contemporary art, recently opened at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. And artist Jonathan Allen and curator Sally O’Reilly are behind the group exhibition “Magic Show,” which originated at the Southbank Centre in London. The show, which aims to demonstrate “how artists adopt the perception-shifting ploys of the theatrical magician,” is on view through September 12 at the art space Chapter in Cardiff, Wales, and opens on October 6 at Pump House Gallery in London.

Appearing in “Magic Show” is the art collective the Center for Tactical Magic, whose Ultimate Jacket (2004), an all-black number with 50 secret pockets, updates ninja apparel for the modern age of warrantless searches and corporate espionage. Magic, collective cofounder Aaron Gach has explained, doesn’t evoke just power and wonder but also such things as a “cheesy Las Vegas sideshow; dreadlocked Wiccan hippy; Dungeons & Dragons wannabe.” He added, “The vastness of the interpretations of ‘magic’ is what gives magic its power in the world of meaning.”

“Houdini: Art and Magic,” an exhibition of memorabilia and contemporary art opening on October 29 at the Jewish Museum in New York, celebrates the escape artist and magician Harry Houdini. The show includes a Matthew Barney still from Cremaster 5 (1997), in which the artist appears in handcuffs and leg cuffs, and an ominous Petah Coyne sculpture, Untitled #698 (Trying to Fly, Houdini’s Chandelier), 1991. Jane Hammond, whose paintings in the show depict Houdini performing strange feats, says that like Houdini, she enjoys creating seemingly impossible challenges for herself. “Contemporary artists have been inspired by Houdini’s showmanship, radical self-invention, transformation of everyday things, and extreme use of his own body,” says the show’s curator, Brooke Kamin Rapaport.

Magic also appeals to artists as a metaphor for the art world, which can seem freakish, inscrutable, and demanding of inhuman endurance. Not a few artists would like to learn to harness the art market’s occult, swirling power that overnight turns scraps of garbage into multimillion-dollar commodities. At his Hyperallergic performance, Powhida offered up a number of designs for “talismans” that his fellow artists could carry for protection. They variously promised to “induce a favorable Friday New York Times review,” “be paid within ninety days or three moons,” “ward off annoying bloggers,” or “beat your high estimate at auction.” The last, he noted, had already worked for him.

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