A Riverside scientist and sculptor uses a physics phenomenon to create hand-carved wooden blocks that appear abstract but cast three different shadows. The skewered blocks resemble abstract wooden puzzles, but when they are rotated on their steel rods, three different recognizable images appear.

“They are abstract in 3D and representational in two dimensions,” says John Muntean, who works at Argonne National Labs as a nuclear magnetic resonance spectographer .

Muntean displayed his hand-carved wooden creations at the Merchandise Mart’s One of A Kind art show and sale in December. Shadow images included three sequential images of a horse jumping a gate, a progression from ape to homo habilis to running-Yuppie-with-briefcase, a DaVinci sequence which morphs from Vitruvian man to the Mona Lisa, to a “Leonardo” signature, and many three-animal combinations.

Muntean uses a physics phenomenon called the “magic angle” to create the illusion. The concept was given a name in the 1960s, but Muntean suspects Greek mathematicians knew about it.

Technically, it’s complicated – “the inverse-cosign of 1 over the square-root of 3,” explains Muntean – but it’s really just 54.44 degrees. When a cube is rotated at the “magic angle,” the three-dimensional coordinates x, y and z will interchange: right and left, up and down change places.

Muntean says the magic angle helps define the relationship between two and three dimensions.

“In two dimensions you can rotate something 45 degrees and the x and y axes will switch places,” he says.

Muntean, 47, got a Ph.D. in chemistry from University of Chicago in the 1980s and has been working with nuclear imaging spectography since then. He also taught organic chemistry on the college level. He built his first magic angle sculpture from clay 20 years ago to explain the principle to his friends.

“Think of a big block of Jello,” says Muntean. “I can cut it with a cookie cutter the shape of an elephant and the shadow [at a certain rotation] will be an elephant.” But because a cube is symmetrical, Muntean can cut two other shapes in the adjoining sides of the cube and get “two other animal shapes” when the cube is flipped around. Muntean uses the same principle at Argonne to figure out the non-symmetrical shapes of subatomic particles.

Muntean has been creating the magic angle sculptures from wood for about three years. He first unveiled them at a show at the Riverside Arts Center in 2008. He carves them in his Riverside garage with an array of woodworking tools, but he designs them on a computer. Using modeling software from Nutek, the company that provides underlying software for Pixar animation, Muntean designs three images that can meld together without interfering with each other’s shadows.

One sculpture incorporates the “religious icons of the three monotheistic religions [Christianity, Islam and Judaism].” As the block revolves, the shadows dissolve from a cross into a star of David into a crescent moon and star. “That one took a lot of [computer modeling] trial and error,” Muntean says.

Once he’s got the right shapes, Muntean selects a chunk of wood, such as a log of Patagonian cherry. First, he bores a hole at 54.44 degrees to be the axis for a one-eighth-inch steel rod. Then he begins to cut, first with an Italian five-horsepower bandsaw. Hand finishing is completed with traditional woodworking tools. Muntean waxes rhapsodic about his “hand-stitched French rasps for really detailed cutting – which are works of art in themselves.”

Muntean thinks the sculptures are a nice metaphor for Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

“Imagine that we are projections in three dimensions of something in the fourth dimension. How can we interpret changing ‘shadows’ as they are evolving in time?” he says.

His images explore some of the hypotheses behind String Theory and the idea of up to 11 different dimensions – each with its own possible “magic angle.” Muntean says he enjoys watching people interact with the sculptures and seeing their surprised faces as they rotate the “turning cube” and watch the shadows change.

His next project?

“I would love to make a large [public sculpture] using the sun as a light source,” he says. “But I don’t have the tools for that. It would take some other kind of [much larger] fabrication process.”

View more of Muntean’s work at his website, www.jvmuntean.com.