Defying Gravity: Contemporary Art and Flight at the North Carolina Museum of Art is the most ambitious show ever curated by the museum–56 artists, 92 works, with paintings, drawings, photographs, sculptures, assemblages, installations and videos spread throughout the building and spilling out on to its grounds. But this is scarcely the reason for a visit to the NCMA. Blockbusters come and go.

Nor is the galaxy of contemporary artists in the show, among them the likes of Vito Acconci, Jonathan Borofsky, Roger Brown, Heide Fasnacht, Peter Fischli and David Weiss, Andreas Gursky, Malcolm Morely, James Rosenquist, Ed Ruscha, Frank Stella, Mark Tansey and Wayne Thiebaud. A name does not guarantee a worthwhile result.

And certainly not any sense of civic duty, though Defying Gravity is intended to mark the 100th anniversary of the first flights of Orville and Wilbur Wright at Kitty Hawk.

What you will discover is that Defying Gravity demonstrates what art is or should be all about. Inevitably some of the work is lame, but most takes us well beyond the realm of pleasant wallpaper.

There is mystery and ambiguity in Andreas Gursky’s immense photograph of a brightly lit Los Angeles seen from above and sandwiched between dark earth and sky; in Vera Lutter’s pinhole camera image of unlit massive airliners in a dusky airfield; in the daylit airport images by Peter Fischli and David Weiss–in any and all of these, man disappears in the distance or in a void dominated by the heavy planes.

There is immense irony in Lawrence Gipe’s “Panel No. 6 from the Century of Progress Museum (Propaganda Series).” It will surely bring a shudder to anyone who recalls the brave utopian visions of the future at the Chicago World’s Fair (1933) and the New York World’s Fair (1939). Over images of 1930s transports Gipe has painted: “All Your Hope Should Be in the Future!” To Gipe, there is little utopian hope in the present, and less to expect in our futures.

There is superb wit and imagination in Mark Tansey’s hilarious “Picasso and Braque.” Picasso is suspended from an apparatus composed of a cubist-inspired violin and collage, while Braque runs along the beach. Picasso is seen as the innovator, Braque the follower.

Imaginative and mordant is Jeffrey Goll’s fantasia, his “Memorial Field for a Disappointed Century”–100 toy airplanes made of anything Goll found lying about–oilcans, typewriter pieces, books, toys, shoes, musical instruments–it’s an encyclopedic collection of junk sculpture.

Among paintings and installations celebrating the physical, creative and visionary freedom symbolized by the revolution wrought by the Wrights are other images–of bombs and bombers and the devastation left by them. Man is left earthbound in a striking installation by Albert Chong, “Winged Evocation,” which has four life-size figures standing stiffly on a bed of goose-feathers. Each has a set of mechanized rawhide wings that flap when a motion sensor is triggered, but otherwise remain entirely immobile. A painted fiberglass figure by Jonathan Borofsky, “I Dreamed I Could Fly,” is suspended above the main exhibition space. It neither falls nor flies, but we are fully aware of the fact that it would fall if wires were not holding it up. In Robert Morley’s “The Flight of Icarus,” a large red model tri-plane does fall. Flimsily made to look like a World War I German fighter, it dives into a bright red “sun.”

On another wall, Morley has painted three detailed sets of children’s plans for a Fokker DVIII, a Nieuport 17, and a Fokker DVII. It is a child’s introduction to death. But the show as a whole is a complex one and, as a whole, is scarcely somber. Ultimately, it deals with the excitement that the very thought of flight can bring to the creative imagination, what horror can result, and what power it has to transform our sense of ourselves and our earth. EndBlock