“Surrealism: The Conjured Life” @ MCA Chicago

Stop Making Sense at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago

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“Surrealism: A Conjured Life” installation view All Images Courtesy of Sarah Rose Sharp

There is a fairly structured approach to cognitive development within our society—we try to make order of chaos. We assigned meanings to symbols (like letters or shapes), and organize those symbols in configurations that generate more complex meanings (like words or images), and continue along, stringing together ever-greater numbers of shapes and letters to make cogent arguments and beautiful imagery. We (hopefully) teach our young people fluency with the existing sets of shapes and letters, so they can grow up to understand all the meaning that has come before, and potentially contribute thoughts of their own to the collective understanding.

Unless we don’t. The Surrealist movement, which formally emerged in Paris in the mid-1920s, supplanted the basic order of established meaning, challenging straight-line association and favoring experimentation across a wide range of media, including theater, writing, film, poetry, and of course, visual art. A survey of foundational and second-generation Surrealist art from the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) collection provides a vivid showcase of some of the lesser-known founders of Surrealism and those that followed in their footsteps—including a number of Chicago-based contemporary artists—and underscores the difficulty inherent in making work that disrupts the basic building blocks of meaning, as they are instilled in most of us from a young age. The work on display includes sculpture, paintings, drawings, and multi-media installations, and a wild array of subjects, rife with texture and symbols. Paradoxically, the exhibition materials provided by MCA immediately attempt to contextualize and categorize some of the symbols, themes, and motifs commonly explored by Surrealists—including death, winged messengers, sleep and dreams, the grotesque, mannequins and dolls, and phantasmagoria—which to some degree undermines the destabilizing objectives of Surrealism as a movement. Again, being nonsensical, generating and/or accepting ambiguous meaning in art, is harder than it initially seems.

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Harry Bertoia, Landscape Fantasy (n.d.), Lead, wire, and stone slab

The gallery is organized into two spaces, an inner circle with rich purple walls that displays some of the movement’s foundational contributors, such as Max Ernst, René Magritte, Dorothea Tanning, Kay Sage, and Remedios Varo. There are some outstanding works here, each radically different from the next – the aesthetics of Surrealism are as disparate and personal as the individuals who worked within the movement. Landscape Fantasy (n.d.) by Harry Bertoia is a delicate collection of lead and wire constructions, resembling a flea circus-like playscape, on a stone slab. This minimal and understated work sits just adjacent to Punching General (1969) by Enrico Baj—an cartoonishly-shaped and upholstered military figure on a spring, designed, presumably, to act as a sparring partner for the expression of animosity toward the military state. Within a nearby patch of wall is a four-part installation by Doris Salcedo; Atrabiliarios (1993) encases shoes recovered from victims of mass violence in wall niches, stitching them in behind semi-opaque membranes that give them an otherworldly quality.

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Marcos, Raya, Night Nurse (1993/96), Installation view

Things are no less esoteric and trippy in the outer ring, which highlights Chicago-based artists that were influenced by the Surrealist movement. An entire wall is devoted to Marcos Raya’s disturbing installation Night Nurse (1993/96), which feels as though one of Frida Kahlo’s medical forensic paintings jumped its frame to become a department store window display. Paintings on Plexiglass suggest internal organs, literally hidden levels of processing, and highly textured paintings pile on revelations in the opposite direction—Surrealists were seemingly obsessed with abstracted notions of the body’s inner workings. The Rascette (1961) by H.C. Westermann, attempts to highlight the secret information encoded in our very palms. A freestanding display presents a two-sided work by Henry Darger—Chicago’s much posthumously celebrated outsider artist, who spent his professional life as a hospital custodian, all the while working on an longform manuscript peppered with illustrations of kewpiesque children in various fantasy states, that is equally disturbing as it is inspired.

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H.C. Westermann, The Rascette (1961), Painted woo

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Enrico Baj, Punching General (1969), Vinyl, metal, cloth, ribbon, foam,

Many contemporary artists in various media have used transcendental meditation as a method for discovering new perspectives and inspiration, and some of them—for example, filmmaker David Lynch—create work that is among the most challenging, dislocating, and original, in a field dominated by sloppy exposition and audience hand-holding. “Surrealism: The Conjured Life” presents a critical mass of work that collectively instigates a kind of dream state—surrounded by so much disordered thought, the viewer cannot help but surrender, at least temporarily, and cease to impose logic upon what she sees.

For some, this may prove to be an extremely alienating experience, but for this reviewer, it is a welcome respite from the cultural spoon-feeding that is the hallmark of our media age, designed to sell consumer products, above all else. Any one of the works in the exhibition would be worthy of longer consideration, but the best effect of all is the collective disorientation. It is a very different kind of shock and awe than the political and media process used to handily to inspire fear and division among the populace; it is a confusion that inspires wondering, and with it, transcendence.

 

 

Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Illinois     https://mcachicago.org/Home

Indigenous Beauty & Invisible Conflict @ the Toledo Museum of Art

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Charles & Valerie Diker (left) – TMA Director Brian P. Kennedy All Images Courtesy of Sarah Rose Sharp

This month, the Toledo Museum of Art opened the fourth and final installation on the tour of Indigenous Beauty: Masterworks of American Indian Art from the Diker Collection. The show features a breathtaking array of cultural artifacts and several contemporary works of Native American art, collecting material culture from tribes that spanned the North American continent. Charles and Valerie Diker, who were approached by the American Federation of the Arts to create this exhibition, were on hand for the opening and to present a Master Series Lecture at TMA on Thursday, February 11. Their relationship with fine art collecting began with modern art, and having been drawn to Taos, New Mexico, they found similar points of resonance in Native arts. They describe their interest as aesthetic-driven, choosing to seek out and present survey of the most virtuosic examples of work by members of many different tribes and regions, rather than specializing in a particular area.

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Some of the highly decorated garments in the Plateau & Plains region.

And virtuosic, they are. The Dikers concern themselves only with masterworks in their collection, and each piece represents skill, generational knowledge, and many hours of labor-intensive handwork. The exhibit is clustered by territory, giving one a sense of regional areas of expertise—pottery and Katsina figurines from the Southwest, wooden masks and tusk-carvings from the Western Arctic, basket-making in the Great Basin and California area. In the plateau and plains region, there is a great deal of detailed clothing, and tucked in the furthest reach of the exhibition, some breathtaking renderings of battle memories—the Great Plains area being the place where the West was truly won, or lost, depending on your perspective.

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A decorated deerskin hide from the Plateau & Plains region.

That perspective is perhaps somewhat lacking, when it comes to this presentation. While the Dikers’ attraction to beautiful objects and their 40-year efforts to amass them is quite understandable, the show’s focus on beauty seems vaguely tone-deaf in light of the brutal history and continuing struggle for recognition associated with the early citizens of America—a process rooted in a similar kind of acquisition-based approach to native property. While the Dikers acknowledge this art as representative of “the first Americans,” and state that the intention of sharing their collection is to educate, there is also a sense that the concept of indigenous Americans as fully actualized and deeply expressive people (rather than cowboy-versus-Indian caricatures) is something of a revelation, in and of itself.

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Guest Curator David Penney offers opening remarks at the media preview for Indigenous Beauty

Or, as stated by guest curator David Penney—one of the country’s leading scholarly thinkers and art historians in the field in American Indian art, and Associate Director of Museum Scholarship at National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.—in a brief one-on-one interview during TMA’s media preview, “American Indian culture is often thought of as something long ago, far away—an almost fairyland American Indian. It’s big in American imagination. In a sense, Americans invented American Indians that never existed. And so, those are the kinds of images that casual visitors to museums—through no fault of their own—bring to exhibitions like this. So I think it’s important to try to reconnect them to American history and [challenge] this idea that American Indian culture vanished or disappeared. That was a prediction made in the 19th century, and it’s still not true. It never was true.”

Perhaps this need to educate at the baseline is real. It is certainly worth acknowledging that there is a prevailing and biased narrative around American history, and the questioning of that narrative is an absolutely necessary precursor to change. Despite a dawning cultural awareness that holidays like Columbus Day go beyond exceedingly poor taste, there are plenty of people who guilelessly celebrate Thanksgiving as a building block of our nation (or are just happy for a day off work). Perhaps it would indeed surprise these people to consider that the skill, soul, and care invested in these cultural artifacts are a reflection of the thriving culture that very much plays a part in the shape of modern-day America. Certainly in a place like Toledo, Ohio, there is a preponderance of artists and craftspeople who can relate to the exquisite handwork of carving, beading, vessel-building, garment-making, and weaving that elevates these objects. As Charles Diker said, in his opening remarks, “There was no word for “art” among these (native) languages, it permeated every aspect of life.”

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Southwestern pottery and Katsina dolls

In the same way that art and daily living were intertwined within the cultures that produced these artifacts, it is difficult for me to contemplate their beauty without also feeling a resounding sense of loss—for the people that were killed, relocated, and stripped of their heritage; for the artistic voices that were silenced or lost in the shuffle; and for contemporary society, being shaped by the inability of the colonists to envision an America that embraced and incorporated their predecessors. I can find no fault with the objects on display, and the question of their inclusion in the art canon is inarguable. If the garments standing empty on wire frames seem to imply a kind of absence, perhaps that is all for the better. Art and beauty can be, as is so often the case, the jumping off point for more a serious process of reconciling the pain in which all of us, as Americans, are complicit.

Toledo Museum of Art  –  http://www.toledomuseum.org/

Indigenous Beauty: Masterworks of American Indian Art from the Diker Collection  –    February 12 – May 8, 2016