Jamie Isenstein, The Oregonian
Jamie Isenstein at the Cooley Gallery, Reed College, Portland Oregon
Originally published in The Oregonian

Jamie Isenstein has a knack for disappearances -- or, at the very least, deflections.

In her midcareer survey "Will Return" at Reed College, where she graduated in 1998, the New York artist presents a range of ingenious illusions that allow her to be literally present and symbolically absent.

There's "Dancing Pop-up Fishing Sculpture," 2010, a multicolored quilted costume festooned with a life preserver that reads "Gone Fishing." When Isenstein dons it, only a single leg and arm protrude, at once concealing and exposing the artist.

For "Magic Fingers," 2003, which greets visitors to the gallery, the artist has fashioned a secret chamber behind a wall displaying an oval gilt frame. When the artist is present, her hand appears in the frame. When she leaves, it's replaced by a simple "Will Return" sign.

And "Clap Magic," 2007, pairs a video of the artist's hands in profile, intermittently clapping, with a lamp in the gallery controlled by remote device The Clapper, which claps on and off ad nauseam.

Like the magicians and vaudevillians that her work often references, Isenstein understands that artists, in metaphorical terms, trade in similar crafts. Artwork, like a magic trick or a gag, diverts our attention away from the person behind it; not wanting to miss the magic, we lose sight of the magician.

And as these figures recur throughout her work, a deadly serious punch line lands: The performer, if we wait long enough, will always disappear, but the illusion lives on.

In that sense, Isenstein's work is preoccupied with the existential joke of mortality, laughing it up at the grave finale that awaits us all. But in her work, Isenstein gambles on the last laugh. After all, if a work of art is immortal and she, in one form or another, inserts her body into her art, some of that immortality is bound to rub off. At least in the controlled space of a gallery, her hands -- or their moving image -- can exert a ghostly influence on the material world forever, turning a light on and off into infinity.

If this obsession with death sounds morose, Isenstein's approach to the subject is surprisingly buoyant and frequently funny. The wonderful photograph "Snuffer," 2008, turns a fear of death into slapstick: As a hand enters the closely cropped frame to extinguish a burning candle, the candle jukes right, bending hard at a cartoonish right angle.

As a fear of mortality is foisted onto the inanimate candle, we can laugh at a comfortable remove. But elsewhere, Isenstein doesn't let us off so easily, reminding us we're equally implicated.

When I visited the show, I signed my name in the customary guest book without realizing it was one of Isenstein's works of art. If I'd flipped to its cover, I could have read its title: "Book of the Dead."