Illusionistic Devices: Things are Not What They Seem to Be

By Erin Goodwin-Guerrero

Beverly Rayner: A Traveling Mesmerist’s Toolkit, Prussia, Ca 1900,  2010


Eyes and what they reveal, what they conceal, transmit and collect have long fascinated Beverly Rayner and she uses them to talk about our fears and foibles.  Coming from the world of photography, she also has an abiding interest in the notion of illusion.  An eye behind a lens, an image from three-dimensional reality flattened onto photographic paper and devoid of color is just the beginning.  In the world of art and politics, hypnosis and the paranormal, things are never what they seem. Reality is manipulated and illusion is perpetrated as truth.

Rayner likes to play with words and their double or indeterminate meanings, as many of her titles reveal.  She states that, in many cases, words and vocabulary become the inspiration for a specific piece, as she develops a series.  Her titles suggest that much of her work is satirical and full of social observations.  This show reflects a lot of current concern for increasing invasion of privacy and the ever-increasing collection of data, and methods that allow outside powers to control us or manipulate our minds and behavior.

In her show at the G. Gibson Gallery, Illusionistic Devices, Rayner presents work from different series and themes, but most call up states of mind and emotions that can be individual or collective. These emotional states derive from our illusions.  Rayner’s Museum of Mesmerism, a portable collection of real and apocryphal tools and symbolic artifacts, presents historical curiosities in aged wooden boxes and on worn red velvet, suggesting the reverence and extensive use they may have had.  An epoch is recalled, perhaps one hundred years ago, when Madame Blavatsky reigned and mesmerism and mystical practices entertained and preoccupied a certain class in Europe.  Watch out, indeed!  In this series, Rayner uses the subtle distortion of eyes behind lenses and eyes embedded in resin to evoke the irresistible power of the hypnotist. We can be deceived by our own eyes and overrule logic when confronted with an effective illusion.

A Traveling Mesmerist’s Tool Kit, Prussia, ca 1900, (2010), contains an eye peering through a lens, a magnet, a tortoise shell comb and hair pin both of which are wavy, a bottle of vapors, and two pendants for hypnotism, one of which features a cat’s eye behind a lens at the end of a chain, and the other, a foggy photograph that only shows two hands at the end of a short string of graduated pearls – a very purposeful and scientific-looking collection.  Also from the collection of the Museum of Mesmerism, An Illusionist’s Portable Conjuring Theatre, 1863 (2010) is a collection of photographs of period faces and figures in an ambiguous architectural setting set in a yellowed resin column that is like an emanation.  I imagine a séance, the breeze of a beloved deceased in diaphanous veils that enters and passes through the darkened site.  The medium delivers a message from the other side.  We are reduced to chills and tears.

Rayner’s Book of Trance Verse, 1812, 2010 at Gail Gibson Gallery, Seattle


Rayners’s Book of Trance Verse, 1812, (2010), is a small, weathered, leather-bound book with a penetrating eye-behind-the-lens on the cover.  The viewer can open and examine it wearing white cotton gloves that are provided.  It was once The Rape of the Lock, actually published in 1812.  The interior pages have been selectively cut out or covered with gold leaf leaving only a dozen or so words revealed on each page.  With a lack of syntax, the reader must read the sequence quickly and form a gestalt.  Some words are repeated throughout, suggesting a hypnotic repetition.  The overall effect leads toward the notion of relaxing and opening up to fresh possibilities, a journey into experiencing the world with newly opened eyes.

Beverly Rayner: Homeland Insecurity Blanket


In several other works in this show, Rayner calls our attention to a very contemporary subject:  the illusion of security.  Homeland Insecurity Blanket is a patchwork quilt made of fabric, photographs of eyes, and pieces of security envelopes, all jig-sawed together to form a map of the United States.  The eyes that look out of this blanket express all sorts of emotional response to the current imperative for national security.  Suspicion, doubt, insecurity, fear and anger are at least as apparent as comfort, relaxation, contentment or a lack of concern.  Rather than asking if our efforts to increase vigilance are producing a sense of security, I am caused to wonder if our epoch of national complaisance has simply past in this shrinking world.

G.O.O.G.L.E. Earth: Beverly Rayner at Gibson Gallery, Seattle


Rayner’s G.O.O.G.L.E. Earth, is an old-fashioned pedestal globe of the earth, with all the continents covered with collage of photographic eyes looking outward.  The collage takes on an eerie slithery quality, like a pile of fish.  Rayner says the piece was inspired by the realization that there is, increasingly, no tiny little square inch of the earth that is not being mapped and photographed for purposes of data gathering and surveillance.  G.O.O.G.L.E. Earth, with all its eyes looking out into space, made me think of an immense army of observers dedicated to monitoring the skies.  For all its arrogance and futility, I lament the demise of the SETI project.  In any case, G.O.O.G.L.E. Earth is funny and unsettling at the same time, like so many of Bev Rayner’s works.

Surveillance Apparatus Infiltration Network Cell Starter Kit, by Beverly Rayner

The Gibson Gallery informs us that the most popular piece in the show is Surveillance Apparatus Infiltration Network Cell Starter Kit. Resembling an octopus or weird starfish, or perhaps an anemone, Surveillance Apparatus is a big central observation eye (or spotlight?) that is spawning a lot of smaller cells whose undulating tube-arms frame each lens with sensitive little feelers.  Again we are reminded of the ever-encroaching information-gathering networks that connect all sorts of data on the earth and about us.  With its robotic character, there doesn’t seem to be a damn thing we can do about it.  Still, taking a casual check of Internet conversations on the subject of hidden surveillance cameras, there appears to be considerable debate about whether this is a good or bad thing.






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