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American Surrealism

Skewed reality, subconscious anxiety at Madison Museum of Contemporary Art

Mar. 12, 2014
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Heart-plucking Americana pictorial art, brash abstract expressionism, impishly ironic pop art and postmodern spin-offs can all make claims as “real American art.”

But is real American art also surreal? That underlying question is a good reason to see “Real/Surreal” at Madison Museum of Contemporary Art—apart from its funhouse array of conceptual, psychological and artistic pleasures. Many of these artists’ interests parallel psychiatry and psychology in inwardly questioning one’s past or self-assurance—one’s subconscious fears and dreams.

 Curator Rick Axsom set many of the freestanding display panels at odd angles to convey surrealism’s skewed reality, says MMoCA director Stephen Fleischman. Running through April 27, and organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, the exhibition signifies “the tension and connections between two powerful currents in 20th-century art: realism and surrealism,” Axsom says.

 Surrealism dominated European modernist art of the ’30s and ’40s, and many surrealists moved to America and would deeply influence American abstract expressionism’s intuitive spontaneity. But this show represents primarily how surrealism weirdly adulterated the intent and act of realistic representation, well past World War II.

 Federico Castellón’s 1938 painting The Dark Figure depicts his own dazed and disembodied head amid a configuration of limbs, and an enigmatic woman engulfed in black, their flesh rendered with a chilling bloodlessness.

 More intriguing are artists who walk a finer line between realism and the psychological edge. Joe Jones’ Depression-era American Farm shows a meager homestead atop a cloud-shrouded hill, which resembles a voracious tidal wave about to devour the farm. George Tooker superbly calibrates his 1950 tempera The Subway. A worried woman stands surrounded by various men—some with undead-like, lidded eyes, others peering anxiously from alcoves, and one weeping against a wall. Both moving and unsettling, the painting blends fragments of multiple stories, feeling like a metaphor for American societal angst.

 The exhibit’s intersection of realist and surrealist insight suggests we Americans don’t spend enough time in reflective self-examination. Film noir, deeply laced with mind-twisting psychological scenarios, was prevalent in the ’50s. You begin to see how attuned to the times American surrealism was, and may remain. 

The show includes work by Thomas Hart Benton, Charles Burchfield, Marsden Hartley, Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, André Kertész, Man Ray, Yves Tanguy, Grant Wood, Andrew Wyeth and others. An accompanying show features Wisconsin surrealists, and a third celebrates MMoCA’s collection of Mexican modernists.


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