Magical Universe: The Art of Al Carbee

This post was written by DOC NYC blogger Karen Backstein

“Every time you fall asleep you wake up in another reality.” So said Al Carbee, the extraordinary subject of director Jeremy Workman’s MAGICAL UNIVERSE, which screened at DOC NYC on Thursday. Every day, Carbee transformed his “new reality” into unique art: photographs of Barbie dolls placed in fantastic, fully imagined settings. From astronaut Barbie on the moon to multiple Barbies in a board meeting, Carbee gave each one a unique story.

MAGICAL UNIVERSE chronicles Carbee’s art and his friendship with Workman and Astrid von Ussar, Workman’s assistant and girlfriend. Carbee, originally a portrait painter, crafted his Barbie fantasy worlds in secret. Only his wife knew, and she refused to even look at them. Two weeks after she died, the 80-something Carbee approached Maine-based journalist Aaron Smith and lead him through a maze of rooms packed with Barbie creations. Amazed, Smith told Workman, who made a short documentary named CARBEE’S BARBIES. After Carbee passed videos of the short around, he was offered his first exhibition.

Like Carbee, Workman has created something of a collage in MAGICAL UNIVERSE, incorporating old videos, montages of Carbee’s art, footage from the original documentary, and interviews. It’s an evocative mosaic that forms a multilayered portrait of an artist who could easily be seen as strange. In the discussion that followed the film, Workman said it was “very important . . . that [Carbee] didn’t come across as a weirdo.” While Workman admitted that he initially thought of Carbee “as this crazy guy with his Barbie dolls,” his feelings about the artist evolved, and that he “wanted to capture that change.”

Karen Backstein has taught cinema studies in a number of New York-area universities and her reviews have appeared in CINEASTE magazine, as well as in several academic journals and anthologies.