san francisco art magazine

Hybrids: The New Surrealists

reviewed by Art Hazelwood

Roxie and Sarah's 1st Swim - Mark Grim

Mark Grim - Roxie and Sarah's 1st Swim

Then it proceeds to exaggerate the natural shapes and the phenomena of reality into indefiniteness and disproportion, to intoxicate itself in them, to seethe and ferment in them, to do violence to them, to distort and explode them into unnatural shapes, and strives by the variety, hugeness and splendour of the forms employed to exalt the phenomenon to the level of the Idea.

--Hegel, Lectures on Aesthetic (1835)

     Surrealism officially died out before World War II, but Surrealism as a concept has stayed with us. It is a term rife with preconceptions and commonly dismissed as so many dripping clocks. However, there has always been a much broader stream that flows through the realm of Surrealism. As a movement, Surrealism goes beyond its historical moment and remains accessible and fertile for both viewers and artists alike. This could not be said of the more specific movements Dada, Cubism or Futurism. Surrealism has become synonymous with a way of viewing the world, but just what is essential to that world is a difficult question to address.

     The Peninsula Museum of Art's Hybrids - The New Surrealists exhibition running through January 7, 2007, answers the question of what constitutes Surrealism with a show of surprising breadth--58 pieces--in a two room exhibition. The success of this show rests on eleven diverse artists whose work connects somewhere in the aesthetic land that is Surrealism. Many of these artists could be shown in any number of contexts. Mark Grim's paintings could be viewed as formalist abstractions, Gary-Paul Prince's paintings could fit right into a political art show. However, in their own way each of these artists have picked up strands of Surrealism and carried it forward. What defines their work is partially the context of this show and the interrelation between the pieces, and partially the context of the very term Surrealism. But while a stronger connection between the work is at once visually apparent, defining that connection is elusive.

     According to curator DeWitt Cheng that connection can be summarized in the word hybrid--the mixing or cross pollination of forms. This definition resonates through the exhibition. The works on display share a sense of dissonance and incongruity. The hybrid of violence and religion in the pop culture inspired work of Gary-Paul Prince; the hybrid of death and fetishism in the assemblages of Susan Danis; the hybrid of flat abstraction contrasted with suggestions of tightly cramped spaces in Mark Grim's colorful paintings. One searches for a theme that links all these hybridizations together in vain. Is it the use of organic forms? Is it the psycho-sexual nature of the work? Is it decadence or decay or lost belief, or spiritual longing? None of these thematic relations hold all the work together. But the contrasting of opposites, the distorting of opposing visions to create something new and unknowable through purely rationalistic (realistic) means, stands out as a shared quality.

All Claims, All Lust for Meaning Disappear - DeWitt Cheng

DeWitt Cheng
All Claims, All Lust for Meaning Disappear

     It is this use of distortion, and the incongruent in pursuit of an idea, that defines Surrealism in this show, not an idea held captive but a pursuit of elusive knowledge. To that end, these artists of disparate vision take their stand. William Harsh in bold strokes and strong colors makes recognizable objects into a series of iconic, elegiac statements. His work connects to the non-French school of Surrealism. Like De Chirico it is laden with a sense of longing; like Max Ernst it has a mock heroic element. In Achilles Inside Out, one feels all the pathos of great plans gone awry. The painting Ice Age suggests detritus on a beach bringing itself together in the form of a chariot of hubris and ennui, pushing towards a failed future.

     Gary-Paul Prince is more direct and certainly less heroic. His painting, Our Lady of Naked Aggression, takes deadly aim at the contemporary mix of sex, religion, and violence. The meaning here is right on the surface, where the contradictions of society are played out in plain view. While the painting does not refer directly to our political moment, it carries an emotional charge that could only be produced in a time gripped by such hysterias.

     Arthur Bell has a series of stunningly beautiful paintings, loose in execution, harmonious in coloring, that gives the viewer entry into a very personal world. His Coming of the Lord is a witty, original and comic piece. The archangel knitting while awaiting the arrival of the Lord is just one touch of this painting that does not go for any easy reading of eschatology. In fact, it speaks both in mocking satire and with a genuine sense of spiritual longing.

     DeWitt Cheng's two paintings in the show have a monumentality that is imposing and a creepiness that is offset by the muted tones and dark richness of the surface. Proto-zoological, psycho-sexual, parasitically nostalgic, these works emit a sense of majesty and decay while allowing a life raft in the form of an enigmatic epigram painted on the canvas, "All Claims, All Lust for Meaning Disappear." As in many of the works in the show, the surface beauty draws the viewer in only to be confronted by the uncompromising content.

     On a smaller scale, the dentures among pearls in an assemblage by Susan Danis, Denture Reliquary, are another example of beauty put to work to attract, and then disorient, the viewer. Danis' work is ornamental and pleasing at a distance, but on closer inspection the grotesqueries become clear. The fact that these are dentures and not teeth at all, oddly adds to the sense of the macabre. But the fetishistic quality and the titles themselves suggest a mystical relation to objects. As to whether the work is deifying the world or debunking the fetishism of Catholic reliquaries the artist never tilts her hand to one or the other. In her piece Wellspring, a very self contained orb with myriad drain stops attached, suggests a radical reversal of the world order. To pull out one of these stops would mean the world draining back into the primal center of the orb.

     The grouping of four of John Hundt's spare collages, which brings the mechanical and the organic together in elegant if menacing ways, shares this contradiction between beauty and menace. Leering eyes and sexy legs suggest relations between dismembered humanity, reduced to the essentials.

Petitioners of the Gods - Arthur Bell

Arthur Bell - Petitioners of the Gods

     Ariel's loosely drawn, richly ornamented paintings have at once a concrete and an abstract nature. The coloring seems to cling only passingly to the figures who exist in an atmosphere of light. The paintings give an immediate impression of vitality. The subjects here are moving with determination and stern self regard while the paint flies about them. The rich textured surface and the sgraffito of some drawn lines assert at once an abstract nature to the work and a concrete sense of the physical presence of the art. Her paintings and sculpture in this show are permeated with a strong sense of the fantastic. Here, more than in other works in the show, we are reminded of the dream world associated with Surrealism. The term was first used by Apollinaire in describing Chagall. And these works share the deep waters of Chagall's sector of the Surrealist vision. Here is a profoundly personal vision; the central character, an actor on a stage, in a dream that is life, in profound self control, buffeted by fate.

     In his paintings, Michael Pollice pursues a path of distorting the human form to create emotional works that convey the surprise of psychological discovery. His figures are suggestive of Picasso's distortions and pursue the expressive nature of the human figure.

     Ribitch, using digital means, creates prints on paper that explode images into densely compressed, highly chaotic textures. Entry into this world is blocked at every portal, and yet the surface is so appealing that one renews again and again an attempt to enter.

     In contrast the reclining sculptures of David Dion seem to welcome entry into what seems to be dioramas of other possible worlds. Figure in Landscape, with its sphinx-like form suggests an aboriginal connection between the world and mankind. This sense of a connection between nature and humanity is done without appealing to any particular aboriginal culture. This gives the work a purity of feeling and a somewhat utopian cast.

     A similarly sunny vision is portrayed in Mark Grim's abstractions. These paintings move between flat object and illusions of depth, and like Ribitch's work they alternately welcome and ward off the viewer. But in the case of Grim's work the reward for perseverance is paid off with a snug harbor of three dimensional illusion slipped into the flat space. The space available is limited, and pretty soon one is knocked out again, wondering where the door was that let him in the first time.

     The works in this show do not sit comfortably and politely nod in agreement. They are agitated. They stand up and offer emotional and spiritual challenges. There is something discomforting about all of these works. The incongruity and the hybridization surprise. The incongruity between subject and surface, space and flatness, or ambition and despair leaves the viewer off balance. All of this disorientation leads to the central truth of the exhibition; Surrealism as a way of viewing the world is not constrained by the singular historical movement, but is rather a language used to communicate the crossroads between conflicting emotional truths.

Art Hazelwood 2006

Hybrids: The New Surrealists
October 29, 2006 - January 7, 2007
Peninsula Museum of Art
10 Twin Pines Lane (in Twin Pines Park)
Belmont, CA 94002, (650) 654-4068
hours: Wednesday - Friday, 12:00 - 4:00, Saturday - Sunday, 1:00 - 4:00

Images appear courtesy of Peninsula Museum of Art, Belmont, CA and artists Mark Grim, DeWitt Cheng, and Arthur Bell.
Photo of Petitioners of the Gods by Anita Saltanis.