Exploring Visual Arts across Madison
Jan 24, 2014
10:41 AM

Opposites Attract at MMoCA

Opposites Attract at MMoCA


"The Dark Figure" b Federico Castellón. Find more works from the exhibition in the slideshow below.

When you think of Surrealism, psychologically charged dreamscapes or scenes rooted in the subconscious come to mind. Salvador Dalí’s melting clocks, perhaps, or René Magritte’s train chugging its way out of a fireplace.

Realism, in contrast, evokes highly detailed, true-to-life works of art. Elegant portraits, beautiful landscapes and other paintings, drawings and prints often hailing from European traditions.

Two entirely different realms of art, movements completely at odds with one another, right?

Not so fast.

Real/Surreal, an exhibition opening tonight at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, makes the case that overlaps between the two not only exist, but make for fascinating exploration.

The show, which highlights interconnections between the imagined and the real in early modern American art, in the years before, during and just after World War II, is a traveling exhibition organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. It boasts some major names—Edward Hopper, Man Ray, Charles Sheeler, John Wilde and Andrew Wyeth, among many others—as well as some significant paintings, drawings and prints.

“You’re seeing important works by important American artists—and works that are important in their own right,” says MMoCA curator Richard Axsom. “These are powerhouses.”

The works helped inspire Axsom and his staff to get creative in laying out the exhibition. In addition to using bold colors instead of a traditional white backdrop, they’ve also angled interior walls and chosen to highlight one work on each. These angled walls create sort of an off-kilter thoroughfare through the gallery, an effect that’s enhanced at the end of the room by Kay Sage’s “No Passing” of a row of structures that disappears into the horizon line. It seems as though one could walk out of the gallery and straight into Sage’s painting.

“This exhibition is in the spirit of Surrealism, to say the least,” says Axsom. “I wanted to set a stage for the work.”

The result is a sort of labyrinth feel, and Axsom stresses that there’s no right or wrong way to move through the show. Works aren’t organized by themes or categories, so visitors should feel free to walk up to whatever piece grabs their attention.

Even the wall with the exhibition title and introduction is set off-center, and visitors may find it difficult to concentrate on the text while an ominous figure lurks just a few steps away.

It’s a female form shrouded entirely in black, save for her hands, and she’s the central figure in Federico Castellón’s “The Dark Figure.” Behind the woman is a jumble of human forms—arms, torsos and a large head—and threatening clouds fill the sk. This is indeed a dark, dreamlike scene, yet there’s no denying the realistic detail the artist employed.

Nearby, two works nicely represent the real-surreal spectrum presented in the exhibition. In Man Ray’s “La Fortune,” a billiards table juts into a sky filled with blue, green, yellow and orange clouds. The artist used two vanishing points, resulting in a distorted scene. George Tooker’s “The Subway” also offers an askew feel, with his scene of a woman in a subway station featuring three different perspective systems.

But while “La Fortune” is classic Surrealism, “The Subway” lies more in Magic Realism territory, in which something extraordinary happens in the ordinary world. What at first may appear to be a common scene—a bustling subway station filled with realistic-looking people and background—soon shows itself as something more: The low ceilings, bars and heavy walls produce a claustrophobic feel, most of the men in the scene seem to be the same person and the woman looks anxious and even fearful. The viewer can’t help but pick up on the sense of suspicion and paranoia in the painting.

Indeed, in many of the works in the show, it seems natural for the viewer to place him- or herself within the disorienting, dreamlike, fantastical scenes and get caught up in the narratives. “There’s a poetry, there’s a haunting-ness to it that can be deeply moving,” Axsom says.

Another element at play is what Axsom calls a “pervasive sense of solitude” that carries through many of the paintings, drawings and prints. People, animals, even buildings are often rendered alone, and viewers feel personally drawn in to them.

That’s the case in Edward Hopper’s “Cape Cod Sunset,” which depicts a white house set near a dense thicket of trees, the sun creating a gorgeous sunset in the background. It’s a beautiful, compelling image. “But then there’s the ‘but then …,’” says Axsom. It’s true. One starts wondering where the home’s inhabitants are and why they’re gone, why the house is so isolated and whether that forest is menacing. Even the sunset starts to evoke a feeling of dread or anxiety.

It’s interesting to thing about both Surrealism and realism in the context of when the works in this exhibition were created. The Great Depression and Dust Bowl draught in America, the rise of the Fascist and Nazi parties, the Spanish Civil War, economic instability and eventually World War II are forces artists of the time could hardly ignore.

Andrew Wyeth, for instance, was aware not only of contemporary happenings, but also had a deep interest in history. His “Winter Fields” of 1942 is a poignant painting of a dead crow in a Pennsylvania field. He gave the crow a dignity one might associate with a fallen soldier, so it’s fascinating to consider that this field is no random setting; it was a Revolutionary War battlefield.

History also comes into play in “Work Reconsidered #1” by the late Wisconsin artist John Wilde, who’s also represented in The Mystery Beneath, a companion exhibition at MMoCA showcasing Wisconsin artists who worked in Surrealism and Magic Realism from 1940 to 1975. Wilde’s interest in Renaissance portraiture is obvious in his Surrealist painting of a nude woman. Her elbow rests on a table alongside a small fish and sliced apple, while butterflies rest on her head and body. She stares directly at the viewer in an elegant pose and points one hand up to the sky.

This painting, like many works in the show, evolves as one explores it. “You’re drawn to it, and then it starts asking questions,” Axsom says. “It’s more than what you see at first.”

Such mysterious, disorienting, extraordinary works no doubt raise questions, but these aren’t unanswered questions, says Axsom. Rather, they’re unanswerable questions.

“You’re never going to get to the bottom of it,” he says.

Real/Surreal runs through April 27 at MMoCA. And don’t miss a series of related programming, including tonight’s event featuring MMoCA curator Richard Axsom and Carter Foster, the Whitney Museum curator who created the traveling exhibition. The two will discuss the show and their curatorial decision-making.

For more information on Real/Surreal and other related events, visit mmoca.org.

Photos courtesy of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

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About This Blog

A perk of being managing editor of Madison Magazine is the opportunity to delve into exciting aspects of the city—and Madison's art scene is one of my favorites. It's dynamic, diverse and always inspiring. Join me here for artist interviews, details on events, exhibition previews, reviews and more.

Find past arts coverage on my former blog.

– Katie Vaughn
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