Sigmar Polke's Laterna Magica brings together all the many varied aspects of the artist's oeuvre into a single, complex but united work of art. Consisting of a series of paintings executed on both sides of a transparent fabric, these magic-lantern panoramas present a sequence of seemingly unrelated images in such a wide variety of painterly and iconographic styles that all the disparate elements seem to merge into a peep-show-like parade that articulates all areas of human perception and experience.
Blending the imagery of cartoons with 18th Century folk woodcuts, abstract swirls of paint with ancient glyphs, stencilled wallpaper designs with a drawing of a computer keyboard, the bizarre onslaught of imagery in these works seems to echo the sense of information-overload that characterises the modern age. At the same time a mystical sense of the inter-connnectedness of all this disparate imagery is suggested by Polke's characteristic layering of forms one on top of the other. Through such non-hierarchical ordering of seemingly randomly chosen imagery from a wide array of media, Polke aims to instil in the viewer a sense of the equality and simultaneity of all phenomena. True reality, Polke suggests, exists elsewhere and outside of our understanding. What he presents in his multi-layered works is a sampling of a sequence of images that approximate this reality. Through the over-laying of these perceptual models of reality an exploration of their relationship to one another is made and, Polke argues, it is in the extraordinary nature of these relationships that a true understanding of the nature of reality is to be found.
Presenting a portrait of the universe as a constantly shifting series of images in a state of flux, Polke's art, like the ancient hermetic 'work' of the alchemists, is an art of transmutation. Like the moving shadows on the wall of a shadow-puppet play, the imagery that Polke has painted in semi-transparent lacquer on the transparent, synthetic fabric of the Laterna Magica transforms itself constantly as the light changes. In this way everything is held and maintained in a constantly shifting balance of form, light and imagery. As Martin Hentschel has written of the Laterna Magica series, "a picture has ceased to be a view, or a window, or a mirror. It seems rather to be the culmination of all these possibilities. For the first time in the history of painting, the picture emerges as something that retains only the loosest connection with its support. It seems to have become temporarily trapped within the transparency; but its proper location is real space." (In: Sigmar Polke. Laterna Magica, exh. cat. Portikus, Frankfurt am Main, 1994, p. 47.)