The Doors of Perception

Am I being tricked, or am I tricking myself?

I’m examining the shadow of trees and plants cast upon a dividing wall of Gallery 10 in the Delaware Art Museum. It’s beautiful and soothing, yet there’s a problem: I can’t locate the window that admits the light that frames the plants that create the shadow. Which proves to be the point.

I catch on—slowly—but as soon as I do, a new problem vexes. The image wraps a corner, and then breaks across open space to continue on another wall a few feet away. Shadows overlap, yet I can’t determine where one ends and another begins.

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So I’m standing in the middle of the room, waving my arms, trying to make sense of their effect on the light, and looking every bit the fool in front of those gathered here. My only hope is that they are as puzzled—and amused—as I am by what they see.

But truth be told, I’m not quite sure what that is. The artist of “East Light Wrap,” Mary Temple, might say everyone sees something different, as artists have said through the ages. That’s true enough, though in the case of this exhibition, science proves them right.
Welcome to “Perception/Deception: Illusion in Contemporary Art,” which opened at the museum on Saturday. The show features works by four artists who seem to find great joy in manipulating light and matter in ways that will force thoughtful viewers to reconsider the trustworthiness of their sight.

In my own defense, by the time I get absorbed in Temple’s shadow play, my brain has already been pleasantly addled by other distortions, manipulations and illusions. I’m especially tickled by Chul-Hyun Ahn’s works in light.

On what is plainly a one-dimensional wall, Ahn assembles neon lamps and mirrors to create reflections that extend without limit. It’s a neat trick: From a flat surface, Ahn has opened a series of seemingly endless tunnels. But to where? One wonders if all those photons are trapped in narrow spaces we know to be real, bouncing back and forth between mirrors at light speed, or if they are hurling through the tunnels into some heretofore undetected dimension—which, if we’re honest about the limits of our knowledge, might also be real.

I’ll happily leave the question to theoretical physicists, who, I’ll guess, would likely be as pleased by the Hubble-like colors of Ahn’s aforementioned “Visual Echo Experiment” as they would be by the appearance of the aptly named “Tunnel”: three courses of cinder block built into a square on the floor, covered with a one-way mirror and containing two fluorescent tubes on one wall. The effect of the reflections is, again, a tunnel of repeating lights, but one that warps as it descends. Looking into the cinderblock-lined depths, I can’t help but imagine I’m looking into a particle accelerator tipped onto its side.

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You might imagine something else, which returns us to the point. Perception is no mere matter of assembling external information that has been gathered by our senses into some useful picture of the world. The external information, which we presume to be objective, is processed with our individual thoughts, memories and emotions to create unique images that have some personal significance. In other words, not only can the same object mean different things to different people, we each perceive—in this case, we each see—things differently.

And that’s not the end tricks that our senses play on us. Though I know the cinderblock tunnel is an illusion, I can’t help feeling a little dizzy as I peer down into it, exactly as I would feel if were looking over the edge of a real cliff. Even if the cause of that sensation is an illusion—and I’m no longer confident enough in my central processor to believe without doubt that’s true—the possibility of falling is real. The mind produces a response that’s been preconditioned by personal experience.

What’s more, experience often creates expectations, so we often predispose ourselves, unconsciously, to see things in a particular, familiar way. At first glance Larry Kagan’s sculptures appear as nothing more than metal rods tangled into interesting clusters hung on a wall. Only after looking at them for a few seconds does your brain snap to attention and lead you to see the forms in the shadows that are cast below the sculptures. Anyone would recognize the forms, though they don’t seem to correspond at all to the sculptures. We didn’t see them right away precisely because we didn’t expect to—nothing in our experience has prepared us for this.

Mosquito V, 2007 Larry Kagan Steel with shadow, 32 x 42 x 19 inches Courtesy of the artist Photograph by Gary Gold Studio

Similar shape shifting occurs in the sculpture of Robert Lazzarini. Lazzarini uses computers to scan three-dimensional objects, pulls and twists their forms into new ones, then re-creates the newly distorted objects in their original materials. In “Perception/Deception,” his objects are handguns of wood and steel that warp and weave in space—and that morph further as you change your point of view.

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Unlike the works of the other artists, Lazzarini’s subject matter is disturbing, not in the fun way known to anyone who has ever walked the House of Mirrors or who has puzzled over the “which line is longer” brainteaser on a diner placemat—a feeling the other work in the exhibition provokes—but in a way that forces us to question our perception of violence. In the movies, which contribute so much to the mythology, we know violence to be made up, fictional—in a word, unreal—so, mentally, we disengage to protect our feelings. We willingly suspend disbelief. Does that mean our perception of fictional violence preconditions us to see “real” violence the same way? Lazzarini’s distortions compel you to look until your brain forces you to see the guns. Now it’s time to question the reality.

As so much good art does, the works assembled by exhibit curator Margaret Winslow surprises—and constantly. One could write an endless spiral about how changing a point of view changes perception, but that would take all the fun out of feeling it. So go do that. You have until September 25.

I’m still wondering, though, who’s fooling who? Are layers of shadow in “East Light Wrap” an accident of lighting in the gallery, is Temple simply toying with those who detect it, or am I tormenting myself because I happened to notice? If you figure it out, please don’t tell me.

Celebrate Antiques

This weekend marks the 40th anniversary of The Brandywine River Museum Antiques Show, unquestionably one of the best in the region. This year’s show features 31 dealers of American furniture, folk art, Asian and European ceramics, Chinese export porcelain, quilts, rugs, clock cases and more. It’s a great way to celebrate turning 40. For more, call (610) 388-2700, or visit

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