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Glenn Kaino turns magic into art

Sitting at a table in his studio, a converted garage behind his Los Feliz home, artist Glenn Kaino reaches into a black velvet pouch. He removes a silver coin and places it in his right hand, palm up and open. Without seeming to move so much as a finger, he somehow catapults the coin into the air and catches it with his left hand.

The trick is called the “muscle pass,” says Kaino, 38. “I think it’s beautiful. It looks like the coin is falling upward.”

But as magic tricks go, it’s not so advanced, he says. “It’s more like juggling. It’s more a move you’d make in a larger sleight-of-hand-performance.”

After spending the last year immersed in the world of illusionists, mentalists and more, Kaino has become something of a magic connoisseur. He has studied under masters, such as the Tokyo-born, L.A.-based Shoot Ogawa, who brought the “muscle pass” to the States. He successfully auditioned to become a magician member of the Magic Castle.

His studio looks a bit like a magic shop, books of the trade mixed with books on Duchamp, and decks of cards everywhere. In the back, he has a “five-way carnival-style” mirror on loan. Stand in the right spot between the two glass panes and you’ll see yourself multiplied by five.

Now Kaino is drawing on this experience for a range of works: an artist’s book (out this month), a documentary about how magic changes lives (still in progress) and a gallery exhibition at LAX Art called “Safe/Vanish” (opening on Thursday) that explores the power of secrets and belief.

An artist best known for conceptual-minded sculpture, Kaino was first drawn to magic about 10 years ago. At that time he taught himself a little “street magic, easy things like two-card monte and making an empty soda can appear full again,” he says.

He mainly put those tricks to use during studio visits from curators and writers. “I did a trick when people arrived as a barometer, a heat test — people would either enjoy it or try to figure it out and take it apart. It was my way of telling how the next hour would go.”

Kaino turned to magic more seriously in 2008, after finding himself fed up with the commercial excesses of the art world. “If I heard one more person talking about the price of a Murakami, or his Louis Vuitton gift shop,” he says, trailing off. “These things just don’t matter to me.”

He remembers telling gallerist Christian Haye during that year’s Art Basel Miami Beach that he had had enough of art as a commodity."I’m going back to magic,” he said. “I want to believe in something again.”

He started hanging out at the now-defunct shop Hollywood Magic, where he picked up a flier for Ogawa: “Learn magic from the master.”

“I asked him to teach me everything, from the ground up,” says Kaino. “Like the Karate Kid, I told him: ‘Wax on and wax off.’ Apparently, “Karate Kid” is not so big in Japan, so he did not get the reference.”

Still, Ogawa got the idea, and the apprenticeship helped pave Kaino’s way into the Magic Castle, where his network of magicians grew. He was disappointed, though, to find many professional magicians were even more jaded than art-world types. “What I found was that many magicians don’t believe in magic. For them, it’s all about technical skill and fooling the viewer.”

He found himself drawn to performers trying to make magic into something more, something maybe closer to art. He got to know Rob Zabrecky, a magician with a brooding, goth stage persona who used to be the frontman for the band Possum Dixon. And he began collaborating with Derek DelGaudio, a sleight-of-hand prodigy who is now thinking about magic in more philosophical terms.

That is partly Kaino’s doing, as he seems to enjoy thinking about magic more than practicing it. For instance, the centerpiece of his LAX Art show is a work about secrets that does not appear to involve invisible ink or disappearing tricks.

This summer, Kaino has been collecting secrets from people, mainly at private parties that double as fundraisers for his project. He opens a high-tech metal briefcase filled with low-tech microcassette recorders and tapes and asks guests to record a secret. They also get paper and pencil to write their names and the “category” of the secret.

At one fundraising dinner, held at the Magic Castle, Pamela Anderson and David LaChapelle turned over their secrets. At another point, Kaino says, Lisa Ling gave him a secret that she swore would damage her professionally if revealed. He even got professional secrets from magicians at the Magic Castle.

In all cases, Kaino assured participants that their secrets would never see the light of day. Their sheets of paper were used as background pages, secrets obscured, in the design of his book. He vows never to listen to the microcassettes, which might or might not be housed in the safe on view at LAX Art. (There is no way to know for sure, as he plans to use a motion detector to make sure the safe isn’t tampered with.)

“People find it hard to believe, but I have no interest in listening to their secrets,” Kaino says. Nor has he trafficked in secrets, though he says two men have asked to buy their wives’ confessions. “I’m more interested in crafting the audience’s imagination. How can we elicit a ‘what if’ experience?”

“You don’t know the implications of revealing a secret until you do. I think of this box as Pandora’s redemption,” he adds. “This box will not be opened.”

Has Kaino contributed his own secret? Yes, he says, going on to talk about a video he is making for the LAX show using his five-way mirror. It is, he says, “my confessional, about my many lives.”

One hint: Internet. Along with making art for the last decade, Kaino has also had a career in Web development, starting his own firm in 1996, a few years after getting his bachelor of fine arts from UC Irvine. He soon joined the online music business and briefly served as the chief creative officer of Napster. He is now working as a new media consultant for a public figure, but, yes, the details are secret.

Despite art-world snobbery about artists who do other things professionally, Kaino has found supporters like Nato Thompson of Creative Time and Thomas Sokolowski of the Andy Warhol Museum, both of whom have sponsored public projects. And he has had work in major fairs and biennials. In 2003, one of his sculptures — an Aeron chair rigged to spin at 200 rpm so that it assumes the shape of a chalice — was a hit at the New York Armory Show. In 2004 he was part of the Whitney Biennial with a 14-foot-tall sand sculpture meant to evoke the Emerald City of Oz.

“In a way, all of my work has been about the construction of meaning,” he says. “Art for me is a transformation of everyday life, looking for magical moments.”

Then there are the taxidermied animals, a series begun in 2006 with a salmon dressed in sharkskin and a pig sporting cow skin. Continuing this series, the new LAX Art show includes a goat made out of alligator skin. The show also has works that explicitly reference magic — such as a series of wands Kaino designed to celebrate artists’ transformative powers. ( Joseph Beuys’ is made out of felt.) All of these works are “dances between art and magic,” he says.

At the end of the studio visit, magician DelGaudio joined Kaino to talk about an October performance at LAX Art — “not a magic show but a magical show,” the artist says.

How would DelGaudio rate Kaino as a magician? “When I met him,” he says, “I would have called him a magic enthusiast, an above-average hobbyist. But then my mind was only in one place — the technical sense of how it looks and feels.”

“Now,” says DelGaudio, “I would put him up against real magicians because there is always substance in his ideas. It’s not just razzle-dazzle.”

jori.finkel@latimes.com


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