Stargazing

The sky is just the beginning

A skull-staving double whammy at the Kevin Bruk Gallery has the polished allure of the Bellagio’s high-kicking showgirls and, conceptually, pays out like a juicy row of cherries on the casino’s slot machines.

Inside the sinister-sounding KBG — the cocky dealer's chosen name for his capacious new digs — Bruk stakes his pair of aces, painter Jesse Bransford and sculptor David Shaw, with the flair of a nimble-fingered card shark fanning a winning hand. One has to give the goon props; he's probably the only gallery guy in town who could qualify as a Secret Service sharpshooter with his 9mm pet pistol.

In the front space Bransford demonstrates a deft touch at playing the angles and roping the spectator with his perceptual head games. His large paintings on paper, a stupendous mural, and a remarkable example of mixed-media hocus-pocus are freighted with astronomical maps, occult diagrams, and esoterically weird scientific shorthand that conjure images of a medieval lab geek.

Influenced by the Kabbalah, bamboozling alchemical treaties, hermetic philosophy, cryptology, pulp science fiction, number theory, and the magical traditions of the Renaissance, this exhibition exposes the synaptic gearbox of the artist's insatiably curious mind.

The thirtyish Bransford, who snagged an MFA at Columbia University and holds a bachelor's from the New School for Social Research in New York City, displays a keen interest in astronomy throughout his work.

Titled "(I) = III (Sol)," this show is the first in a series of seven Bransford has planned, each themed around a different observable planet or star in our solar system.

Beginning with the sun — the eye of the deity according to ancient myth — the artist cross-references arcane symbols of solar cult worship from broad periods of history and diverse cultures, casting his quirky lights on discarded sources of knowledge.

As you enter the gallery, Radiance, 2005 — a mural measuring 35 by 14 feet, rendered in fiery washes of yellow, orange, and red — dominates a vast swath of space and eclipses the senses.

Painted on to a corner wall, this two-dimensional picture appears on a three-dimensional surface that exists only in the mind's eye. Bransford turns in a nifty hat trick, forcing the spectator to complete the perceptual circuit.

Toward the bottom of the mural a kamea — a magic square used in talismanic circles — is depicted floating above the floor. Known as the table of the sun, the 36 cells of the six-by-six grid are filled with numbers so that the contents of each row, column, and the two diagonals total 111. It smells like one of those Japanese Sudoku puzzles found in most newspapers. Old-school sorcerers believed it was an effective mojo for luring people to fork over their moolah.

Rising from the kamea's center is a Corinthian column crowned by a shimmering golden orb aping a candle and its glow. Bransford has added an expansive star map to the background, heightening the illusion of infinite depth. The effect is akin to a trippy planetarium laser show, exploring the origins of space and the intense heat generated by burning stars.

Another mind-boggling piece is Spirits and Intelligences (Sol), 2005, a dazzling contraption that uses with dizzying success cylinder anamorphism — a technique popular in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth centuries, when kooky geniuses experimented with distorted perception.

Bullwinkling a rabbit out of his hat, Bransford smears the Egyptian solar god, Ra, and the Norse goddess of sun and growth, Freyer, in a blur onto Masonite.

The painting lies flat, at hip level, resting on a wooden base. A chrome cylinder stands in the middle of the two unrecognizable images. As one walks around the piece, Ra and Freyer are conjured in perfect detail on the mirrored tube's surface, provoking a "Holy smoke!" reaction.

Lion of the Sun, 2005 — a large acrylic, watercolor, and graphite work on paper — is so anally rendered one can almost imagine Bransford sporting his paintbrushes alongside a slide rule in a pocket protector. The painting seems more like a silk-screen or a meticulous woodcut than something executed by the artist's hand, and betrays Bransford's maniacal obsession with sharp edges. It also trumpets his gift for diagrammatic riddles.

A slate and yellow wash and a star map field form the background. On the left side of the composition, a Chinese sun lion rockets across constellations. To the right, a geodesic sphere hovers, superimposed by a magic square containing the Hebrew alphabet. The sun's talismanic planetary seal appears twice, hinting that Bransford has been rooting in occult murk and gotten its mumbo jumbo deep under his fingernails.

Experiencing his colorful and mysterious work, feeling razzle-dazzled by his inventive creativity, I can't help being impressed that Bransford is one heck of a nerd.

Skating over to the project room, I bumped into Bruk, who boasted that sculptor David Shaw comes from another planet. Exploring Shaw's work, I wondered if that statement might be true.

If your beach reading includes Sex, Drugs, Einstein, and Elvis: Sushi, Psychedelics, Parallel Universes, and the Quest for Transcendence, Shaw's stuff will flip your lid.

Dimitree, 2003 — a holographic laminate, fluorescent paint, steel, wood, and glass sculpture — is based on the molecular structure of Dimethyltryptamine, one of nature's most powerful hallucinogens. Shaw, who studied psychopharmacology at Colgate University before picking up his art degree with honors there, notes that DMT, as it's more commonly known, was fabricated by the CIA during the Fifties and Sixties for use as a truth serum or brainwashing drug.

In 1988 researchers at the University of New Mexico found that volunteers injected with high doses of the psychoactive substance reported experiences identical to alleged alien abductions. Others claimed to experience "profound time-dilation, time travel, journeys to paranormal realms, and encounters with spiritual beings." Based on Shaw's spacey sculptures, a bookie would give fair odds he might be a fellow traveler.

Shaw's challenging work reads like a train wreck between technology and nature, and alludes to a botched laboratory experiment or the radioactive echoes of a nuclear meltdown.

Dimitree metaphorically mainlines Shaw's desire to break open the spectator's head and tune out preconceived information clogging perception. It portrays a phalanx of interlocking pentagons coated in holographic laminate, branching out from a pair of tree stumps whose sawed-off ends are also covered with the ethereal coating. From one of the five-sided polygons, a solitary mutant-glass teardrop appears to be on the verge of anointing the floor.

Shaw cleverly uses the holographic laminate, a two-dimensional material, to convey three-dimensional effects. His icy, prismatic surfaces refract light like sunshine-dappled snowflakes and emit a radiant, hallucinatory sheen.

Another tasty holographic piece, Knot, 2004, features the skeletal frame of a dishwashing machine-size cube. Sinewy steel tendrils, painted in a spectrum of toxic Day-Glo colors, snake up some of its sides, mimicking the cartography of knots and growth-pattern lines present in saw-milled planks of lumber. A turgid tree branch, the girth of one of Mary-Kate Olsen's rickety stems, juts out from one end like the prow of an alien-interdicting Coast Guard cutter.

Shaw's stellar show-stealer, Root, 2004, has the uncanny vibe of a force of nature and seems crafted more by a hurricane than an artist. It's reminiscent of a tangle of debris spawned by Katrina. This hair-raising phenomenon has the feel of a throwback rooftop TV antenna skewering a pile of mangled wood chunks and tree limbs. Unfortunately the eye-popping piece was knocked out of commission when a conga-line of tornadoes whistled through Wynwood. Don't worry about jonesing. Shaw has managed a more mind-altering legerdemain to replace it.

From ringside this boffo bangup convinces that the perennially black-clad Bruk has sewn up bragging rights on his patch of the hood and that his boys are worthy contenders poised to take the belt. Expect some big Basel pimping from the KBG crew in the Art Nova pit come December.

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