Nearly 90 years after his death, Harry Houdini still draws excited crowds, as proven by the throngs at last Friday's opening of "Houdini: Art and Magic" at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. A talk by the show's curator was standing room only, and MMoCA's main galleries on the second floor were packed with adults and kids alike.
The show, which was organized by The Jewish Museum in New York and makes its only Midwest stop in Madison, fuses historical memorabilia with work by contemporary artists fascinated by Houdini's stunts, showmanship and legacy. A Wisconsin stop is fitting, given that Houdini, a rabbi's son, lived in Appleton as a child.
It's a bit of a departure for MMoCA, which tends to focus more straightforwardly on modern and contemporary art, but the show is already proving to have wide crossover appeal. Several video screens in the galleries play clips of famous feats, such as Houdini jumping off a bridge into a river while handcuffed and surfacing with the shackles off, or freeing himself from a straightjacket while dangling, upside down, from a building.
Roughly two dozen works by contemporary artists range from video and installation (with live birds, no less) to more conventional media such as sculpture and painting.
Heavy chains in Petah Coyne's sculpture, Untitled #698 (Trying to Fly, Houdini's Chandelier), recall those with which Houdini bound himself for feats of escape. The piece's suspension from the ceiling brings to mind the many stunts he performed while dangling over crowded city streets. Coyne's work compels the viewer with its brooding, mysterious presence, rather than a literal representation of Houdini.
Some of my other favorites included Jane Hammond's large-scale paintings, one of which shows Houdini on a tightrope, performing his needle trick (in which he swallowed sewing needles and then pulled them from his mouth on a string). In this case, the silhouettes of women in pre-Civil War dress hang strangely from the string. The simplified, graphic composition of Hammond's painting calls to mind posters for his appearances, some of which are on view here.
Like a magic trick, Japanese artist Ikuo Nakamura's sculpture Materialization involves a fool-the-eye element. Glowing, holographic hands seem to emerge from an imposing metal milk can, an homage to one of Houdini's greatest tricks.
While a few of the contemporary art pieces are superficial, "Houdini: Art and Magic" is still visually rich and just plain fun. It's fascinating to see old family photos of Houdini (born Erik Weisz in Hungary), vintage handcuffs, old show posters, his straightjacket-all the stuff of legend. If magicians reel us in by transforming what we think is possible, so do true artists, and "Art and Magic" presents a novel fusion of both realms.