Last week I found myself in as classy a situation as a college student can hope for on a Tuesday evening: munching on finger sandwiches and petit fours at a gallery opening, browsing the work of a critically acclaimed artist. The show was artist-in-residence Žilvinas Kempinas’ sculpture exhibition, and the Jaffe-Friede Gallery in the Hop had been transformed for the occasion. The walls and floors were painted a dramatic deep black, the room illuminated only by the spotlights on each piece.
It’s a fitting space for Kempinas’ work, which immediately draws the viewer’s eyes. His sculptures are unique in many ways, but what captures attention right away is the fact that many of them are moving—seemingly on their own. Of course, upon looking up, gallery visitors can see the fans mounted on the ceiling that create the air currents animating Drift (2017) and Focus (2009), two pieces constructed minimally out of magnetic tape, but the first impression is one of magic. The metallic tape hovers just above the ground, spinning in a loop that looks almost alive. In fact, every piece in the show has a similar quality to it: Kempinas plays with physics and optical illusions in a way that almost guarantees a double-take. However, if viewers examine each piece in the gallery closely enough, they can get a sense of how the art works. The discovery is just as delightful as the magical first impression.
There are five pieces in total in the show; aside from the kinetic sculptures I just mentioned, there’s Bearings II (2015), a semi-kinetic piece incorporating ball bearings moved by magnets, Illuminator XVII (2015), an asteroid-like sphere that seems to impossibly bulge from its frame, and 186,000 mi/s (2003)—my personal favorite, created only from the shadows that a series of white needles leave on the gallery wall under the lights. Kempinas’ pieces are minimalistic, with a streamlined and elegant simplicity that masks the complexity of physics required to make them work. The moving pieces are exceptionally deceptive: the loops of magnetic tape in Drift and Focus must be positioned just right in the air currents from the fans to keep them from spinning out wildly. It’s a delicate balance, but Kempinas achieves it just right. The result is breathtaking.
The full effect can only be achieved in person. Fortunately, you too can see Kempinas’ work (though you’ll have to forego the finger sandwiches). The exhibit runs through March 5 in the Jaffe-Friede Gallery at the Hopkins Center.