Art Review Archives:
July 13 - September 21, 2002
Even people who venerate the Surrealist art in the Art Institute's Bergman Collection might be surprised to find that those marvelous works of art are not like dinosaur bones, but part of a living tradition: there are artists here in Chicago who are part of an international group of Surrealists. Penelope and Franklin Rosemont along with other members of the Chicago Surrealist Group, followers of French artist Andre Breton, whose hospitality and approval they enjoyed in Paris during the sixties, are still avidly engaged in Surrealist practice. A collection entitled "Surrealism Here and Now," generated by the Chicago Surrealist group and their far-flung friends, is currently hanging at the Heartland Cafe in Rogers Park. On one level, the cozy Heartland does not enjoy the glossy high art sanction that the Art Institute might confer; on another, the work retains the authenticity of Surrealist practice, because it inhabits a milieu much like the original cafes in Paris where the great waves of Modernist art arose out of conversation, argument, revelry, intrigue, poetry and, of course, radical politics.
Cultural theorist Guy Debord, poet Octavio Paz, Herbert Marcuse, Photographer John Clarence Laughlin and a host of others, known and unknown, have been part of the ongoing dialogues which inform the work of the artists whose images are on display at the Heartland. Living Blues Magazine's Editor Paul Garon, has been a significant participant as well. Several distinctive genres of work, paintings, assemblages, broadsides, collages and Exquisite Corpses vie for our attention. The work is hung salon style, one piece over another, rather than only side by side.
The Exquisite Corpse is in some ways, the most perfect Surrealist artifact. It is a drawing, painting -- or a poem -- which is begun by one artist and passed on to another artist. Sometimes the subsequent artist can see what the other artist has done, at other times, the artists work together even though they can see one another's work. This technique produces radical disjunction in realities, because each person's subjective reality is different from the next. So an image may combine a boat and duck and a woman and yet cohere as a metamorphic being that is greater than the sum of the juxtapositions that create it. Juxtaposition is likewise key to Surrealism because it allows free expression to the essential differences between people and functions to reach something larger which arises from the shock created by their coming together. In addition, juxtaposition reproduces the logic of dreams, displacing and condensing images, and subverting rational catagories.
For those of us involved with the arts, especially the visual arts, the long term effects of competitive individualism are often enervating and isolating. The technique for producing an Exquisite Corpse allows the artist to unschool him or herself, to disregard the exhausted formulas of art for images that will, because conscious control has been relinquished, speak freely and playfully. According to the tenets of Surrealism the heuristic energy of the unconscious, which, because it is outside the constraints of socialization, reveals truths that are ordinarily repressed. I love the Exquisite Corpses because I feel collaboration is a habit that we all need to practice at the same time, it's not merely a technique, on the purely visual level, there is an admirable directness and honesty to the drawing or language that makes up the piece. The Exquisite Corpses by various artists and writers at the Heartland are complex and fascinating. They seem like mysterious diagrams, laden with hermetic meanings that are just out of reach and, indeed, they are. The pluralistic, utopian, syndicalist freedom that the Surrealists would like to create seems to exist only in the ephemeral body of the group these days.
Wonderful frieze-like biomorphic totem paintings by Penelope Rosemont capture the complex polyrhythms of Free Jazz. In addition to having published an important book entitled Surrealist Women: An International Anthology with the University of Texas Press, Penelope Rosemont's paintings have been shown at the Venice Biennale. Jagged abstractions -- Flipside of the Dialectic and Queequeg Throws the Dice -- are laden with philosophical, political and literary allusions, by Franklin Rosemont whose own polymorphous history is not only exciting because it directly links the group to so many important radical and utopian movements of the twentieth century, but because it confirms Chicago's identity as an important site of a potent working class marginality which nourishes the arts more than any grant or private fortune. Small Arshile Gorky-like abstractions in sublime colors by an Indonesian painter and poet named Schlechter Duvall stand out, as do the disturbingly lucid photo collages by Jan Hathaway. An unsettling set of photocollages on sheets juxtapose text from Grimm's fairy tales with images of erotic discovery in a piece by the youngest Surrealist (the oldest is in his 80s) 17-year-old Ruth Oppenheim-Rothschild. Many of the titles and the works themselves capture the musings of poets who resist the traditional separations between verbal and visual arts, notably African-American poets Jayne Cortez and Ted Joans. The room is full of interesting work and the stories and connections from which it all emerges are most assuredly part of the alchemy of the exhibition even if we can't know them all.
Along with the art there are many intriguing publications for sale. The books are a critical and inseparable part of Surrealist practice, rather than merely commodity fetishism. Among them are: Franklin Rosemont's authoritative collection of Breton's writings, Penelope's anthology Surrealist Women, with its astute introductions to forgotten women, Paul Garon's book, Woman with Guitar: Memphis Minnie's Blues, various manifestos and an Anthology of American Surrealist poetry translated from the French, where American Surrealism is appreciated like Gangster Films were in another age, for their violent and anarchic vision and ultimately optimistic innocence. "Surrealism Here and Now" remains until September 21 and readings -- notably Ted Joans -- and publication parties are scheduled for the duration of the exhibition. A broadside is available at the Heartland.
Editorial Note: "Surrealism Here and Now" presents fifty-five paintings, drawings, and collages in the East Room gallery. Several books by artists in this exhibition are available in the Heartland Cafe's bookstore.
Artists in the show are: Gale Ahrens, Jennifer Bean, Jen Besemer, Laura Corsiglia, Jayne Cortez, Guy Ducornet, Rikki Ducornet, Schlechter Duvall, Beth Garon, Robert Green, Jan Hathaway, Don LaCross, Mary Low, Tristan Meinecke, Anne Olson, Ruth Oppenheim-Rothschild, Franklin Rosemont, Penelope Rosemont, Ody Saban, Debra Taub, and Joel Williams.
Books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews may be purchased through this site's amazon.com link. Penelope Rosemont's Surrealist Women: An International Anthology was issued by the University of Texas Press (1998). Paul Garon's Woman with Guitar: Memphis Minnie's Blues was issued by Black Swan Press/Surrealist Editions (P.O. Box 6424, Evanston IL 60204; a book catalogue is available). Surrealist books are also sold at Chicago Rare Book Center, 56 West Maple, Chicago, Illinois, 60610 (Tel: 312/ 988-7246). Surrealist Experiences (Black Swan Press: 2000) was reviewed earlier in this magazine (August:2000). An earlier generation of "American Surrealists" was reviewed in www.artscope.net (April:2001). "What is Surrealism?" is probably the best statement of the movement's original intents. Franklin Rosemont has compiled and edited a selection of Breton's writings under that title. It is available from Pathfinder Press.