Sculpture fools the eye and disarms the mind

At a Glance

Not long after stepping into the eerie new show of ultra-realistic sculpture at the Contemporary Art Center of Virginia you may start to feel like you stumbled into a world where time stands still.

Art — the aging watchman who sits by the entrance — is strangely motionless. So is the lithe female dancer trapped in mid-pose. Then there's the middle-aged maid with the feather duster, the bald sunbather who's gotten too fat and the scantily clad but thoughtful young woman perched on top of a pedestal.

Every single one of them is frozen in the moment — and you're the only one who still has the power to move.

No wonder that the bewildering creations of Milwaukee sculptor Marc Sijan make many people feel like they've made a wrong turn, mistakenly entered some secretive place and become accidental intruders.

Everything you see here — from the pores of their skin to the flash of their eyes and the angles of their chins — tells you that these are real people rather than devilishly convincing polyester-resin figures. And so powerful is this evidence that the instinct to step back and give them a little bit of space can be overwhelming even when you know their secret.

It's a "Gee whiz!" experience with a capital G — one where you respond with your eyes, your gut and sometimes the hairs on the back of your neck long before you start thinking.

Sijan begins by taking exacting plaster molds from live models, capturing not only their physical forms but also such small but character-filled details as sags, scars, moles and wrinkles. Then he dons magnifiers and begins refining the interior of the negative mold, adding still more accuracy and evidence of life with specialized modeling tools.

After casting the figure in polyester resin, he can spend as long as six months sanding, painting and perfecting the surface in an effort to duplicate the often elusive texture and color of human skin.

Working with a magnifying glass and a set of tiny brushes, he applies as many as 25 coats of paint in his quest to mimic various features. Freckles, age spots, pimples and even goose bumps and blood veins can all be found on the surfaces of his meticulously recreated figures.

"The goal is to achieve depth, yet translucency. It can't be flat," the artist says. "The chest and throat texture is different from that of the arms, legs and stomach. Facial skin differs from that of the torso."

Wigs, clothes, watches, jewelry and glasses come next, adding to the power of Sijan's illusions. And in many cases what results is much more potent and mesmerizing than any mere wax museum copy.

Viewers often gaze at Sijan's figures with a mixture of curiosity, admiration and wariness as they struggle to take in and decipher his deception. They study the eyes, the mouths and the hands, searching for some telltale sign of the figure's intent — some evidence of life and reaction.

Instead of providing relief, however, the utter lack of response only makes you feel more uneasy. You miss the continuous stream of clues that normally enable you to size someone up, and — in the back of your mind — you worry about whether that breakdown will get you yelled at or even slapped senseless.

Still, there's an astonishing kind of vulnerability in Sijan's figures, too. From the bulging flab of a wildly overweight male bather to the alluring neck and back of an attractive young waif, virtually every physical feature is out in the open. Yet they all seem to pause patiently as you run your eyes over what would otherwise be closely held secrets.

Sometimes that voyeuristic encounter can be ticklish — as with a half-dozen or so nude and semi-nude young women that Sijan uses to conjure up a gallery of 3-dimensional pin-up figures. Then there are the candid, unusually penetrating insights into old age found in the character-filled faces of "Lady with Lipstick" and "Man with Cigar."

The more you look, the more you see — as in the unexpectedly wrinkled, perhaps even dirty skin found on the bottom of a pretty girl's foot. And after the initial shock, what is there about the fat man's stare that makes him seem so sympathetic and human?

Staring, in fact, is the main occupation of both the artwork and the visitors in this provocative exhibit.

And in 15 minutes you can find out more about how you read and size up other people than you ever did with anyone real.

Erickson can be reached at and 247-4783. Find him at and

Want to go?

"Ultra-Realistic Sculpture by Marc Sijan"

Where: Contemporary Art Center of Virginia, 2200 Parks Ave., Virginia Beach

When: Tuesday-Sunday through June 26

Cost: $7 adults, $3 children 4-14

Info: 425-0000/

Online: Go to to see pictures of the sculptures

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