Smoke & Mirrors: Magical Thinking in Contemporary Art

Two white-gloved hands floating in space with fire erupting from the fingers.

Sarah Charlesworth, "Trial by Fire," 1992-93, Cibachrome with lacquered wood frame. Courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery

Members: FREE
Adults: $16.00
Seniors (ages 65+): $12.00
Groups: $10.00
High School Students (under 18): FREE
Children (under 15): FREE

Ask about enrolling in our College Partner Program to receive FREE adult General Admission

Free, daily docent tours are available


Wed - Fri - Sat - Sun: 11:00 am - 6:00 pm

Thu: 11:00 am - 8:00 pm

Mon - Tue: Closed


The exhibition’s title refers both to performative magic and to the “magical thinking” in today’s culture rife with disinformation, conspiracy theories, and “alternative facts.” In essence, the theme of the show is lying, whether it’s stage magic where the audience is in on the deception or hoaxes perpetrated for financial or political gain. The show includes artists who are inspired by stage magic or creators of deep fakes that, when exposed, reveal a greater truth.

The inspiration for the exhibition is the life and career of the late Amazing Randi, a Florida resident and legendary stage magician who was a relentless debunker of charlatans.  Jose Alvarez (D.O.P.A.), an artist who has exhibited at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, was Randi’s lifelong partner. He began his career as a performance artist in the 1980s when the two collaborated on an international project exposing spirit channelers.

This exhibition is especially timely. There are parallels between our day and the early 20th century with its deadly flu and world war that spawned an epidemic of fake mediums as well as the golden age of stage magic. The trauma of our own pandemic, climate disasters, and rampant violence have seen an explosive increase in supernatural characters in popular culture as well as dangerous hoaxes that have proved difficult to discredit.

Running concurrently with Smoke and Mirrors is Tony Oursler: Creature Features. Multi-media artist Tony Oursler’s Creature Features is an installation commissioned by the Museum, especially for the Smoke and Mirrors exhibition. It explores what the artist calls the “delicate balance between American creativity, mysticism, and scientific ingenuity.” It includes a feature-length film and several new works based on American folklore, legends, and hoaxes akin to today’s urban myths and conspiracy theories.

"Imponderable" is a cinematic experience made with the use of Pepper’s Ghost, a device invented in the 19th century and used by magicians to make “spirits” materialize on stage. The film’s narrative is based on Oursler’s real-life family story and includes his grandparents, Grace Perkins and Fulton Oursler, as well as Harry Houdini, debunkers of psychic phenomena, Arthur Conan Doyle, various mystics, magicians, and writers.

The flow chart on the adjacent wall documents the fantastical yet historical cast and plot of the film and is taken from Oursler’s extensive archive on all things paranormal.

Oursler’s animated fairy based on the Cottingley Fairies is also featured. This was a hoax perpetrated by two young girls in 1917. Despite inventing the ultra-logical Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle, who was a firm believer in the paranormal, was convinced of the authenticity of the Fairies. In fact, the girls had cut out drawings from magazines, pasted them to cardboard, and photographed them in a garden.

Conan Doyle sent copies to Fulton Oursler, who, in collaboration with Harry Houdini, proved to him that the Fairies, as well as mediums and spirit photographers that he believed in, were fake.

The 1869 Cardiff Giant is arguably the most notorious hoax of the 19th century. It was perpetrated by a science-minded skeptic soon after Charles Darwin presented his theory of evolution. His aim was to prove to Biblical literalists that the idea that there were “giants who walked the earth” was not scientifically credible.

Advertised as a real archeological find, thousands lined up and paid to see it. Oursler’s translucent 3D rendering of this enormous, petrified giant is an antenna and transmitter for conspiratorial media and is shown in a theatrical setting like that in which it toured the country.

In another work, Oursler deals with the murky history of American UFO culture. He considers it a mirror reflecting societal shifts, as the utopian idea of alien life of the 1940s and 1950s devolved into the dark abduction scenarios of the 1980s and 1990s. The Flatwoods Monster was a tall extraterrestrial that supposedly appeared just after a bright object flashed through the night sky in Flatwoods, West Virginia, in 1952. The entity that Oursler has created is based on the descriptions and drawings taken from the Flatwoods witnesses as well as later accounts of alien encounters and abductees.

For Oursler, crystals represent the extremes of hard science and myth. The resonant quality of crystals allows for the synchronization of signals and is thus used in telecommunications and digital technology. In New Age lore, they have magical powers, especially when used during a full Moon. His Magic Elf installation is made from the seven fundamental crystals found in nature and constructed from shaped mirrors and dichotic refraction screens. Projected images of tiny figures combined with archival footage, created in part with Artificial Intelligence, poetically explore such concepts as the digital divine, four dimensions, 5-D technology, near-death experiences, and hallucinogenic states.

Kathleen Goncharov Senior Curator

Curated by Senior Curator Kathleen Goncharov


A Night of Magic at the Museum
Title wall for Smoke and Mirrors: Magical Thinking in Contemporary Art exhibition with photographs in oval frames in background and series of paintings at right of text.

Title wall for "Smoke and Mirrors: Magical Thinking in Contemporary Art."

Portrait of magician Ricky Jay made up of playing cards at left, sculptures of rabbits being pulled out of hats at center, and series of oval photographs by Sarah Charlesworth at right.

West gallery of "Smoke and Mirrors."

Four monitors with videos of psychics; still images and projected video of magic tricks.

East gallery of "Smoke and Mirrors."

View of Education Gallery featuring the Yes Men artwork wall graphics and bodysuit for "SurvivaBall."

View into Education Gallery for "Smoke and Mirrors."

Visit the Museum
501 Plaza Real
Boca Raton FL, 33432

Exhibition Sponsors

Additional Sponsor Text

This exhibition has been made possible by the Museum's Leadership Donors.

Related News

Fri, Nov 17 2023 - In the News: Sun Sentinel

Call them conspiracy theories, alternative facts or disinformation, but the theme of the Boca Raton Museum of Art’s…

Fri, Nov 10 2023 - In the News: WLRN South Florida

Ahead of Art Basel overtaking South Florida next month, a new multi-sensory art exhibition will explore the…

Wed, Oct 25 2023 - In the News: Ninu Nina

The Boca Raton Museum of Art will present the world premiere of the Teiger Award-winning exhibition Smoke and…

Fri, Oct 13 2023 - In the News: New York Style Guide

Tony Oursler, Urs Fischer, Alfredo Jaar, Faisal Abdu’Allah, Christian Jankowski, Jane Hammond, Glenn Kaino, Sarah…

Thu, Sep 28 2023 - In the News: Ocula Magazine

'The correlation between magic and art making has always loomed large, and this exhibition takes this idea one step…