Art Review Archives:
198 pages, Illustrations.
Surrealism is alive and well in Chicago. (!)Surrealism is alive (!) and well in Chicago. (!) Surrealism is alive and, well, in Chicago.
Actually --- (It is.)
Surrealism is alive and well in Chicago, and, at this very moment... it has written an (ex tempore) memoir. That is, more accurately, Penelope Rosemont, Chicago Surrealist, artist, (?!) anarchist -- free spirit, has... through Black Swan Press, released an anthology, Surrealist Experiences.
Surrealist Experiences anthologizes new works and pieces hitherto scattered in earlier journals such as Arsenal/Surrealist Subversion, Earth First!, Arte e alchimia, City Lights Anthology (San Francisco), and others. The content starts with 1970 and continues through the 90s (eleven pieces appear here for the first time), and ranges from Penelope Rosemont's experiments with several media and techniques -- her process of discovery (as in the chapter "Beyond Collage"); Surrealist declarations and prose/poetic works (which, in Surrealist fashion, at times interchange); and engaging, often historically instructive remembrances, feuilletons: "[Chicago's] Maxwell Street in the Sixties," and "Citizen Train Defends the Haymarket Anarchists" are of particular note. The cover and frontispiece both offer color illustrations, but numerous black and white reproduction are liberally supplied throughout the book. Surrealist Experiences concludes with nine pages of references (which, for the dedicated, offer a virtual contemporary Surrealist university).
A first question must be: just what is the content of Surrealist Experiences? A 'textbook' precis may be in order, if only as a foil. After Dada waned about 1922, French writer, Andre Breton, borrowing from the poet Apollinaire took up the torch and crystallized Surrealism as writing or visual art which captured the 'true,' often analogical workings of thought. Surrealism, a la Breton made strong appeal to Automatism, a surrendering to free impulse which, it was thought, would allow inner functions to express their essential workings. Unconscious self-interrogation would liberate the self; and with this came flirtations with psychologies, some of them Freudian. With no inhibitions or restraints, Surrealism often found common cause with leftists, free-thinkers, anarchists. Andre Breton theorized a movement from an ambient tendency. By the very nature of Surrealism, there must be recruits, fellow-travellers and mavericks; Collage, paintings, prose poems and Automatic activities.... Where does Surrealist Experiences, its writing and its art fit in?
Duchamp the Instigator (as Robert Motherwell, later) took pains to ensure that his collage work would be seen to be cut, pasted, constructed and assembled. Much operated upon citation, beyond the image itself: its associations and connotations were linked to content. Duchamp, having distinguished and exploited material as the bearer of image, and image as distinct from its bearers, its discrete, particular objects, went on to explore what sets objects apart as art. This latter query is a favorite philosophical conceit of theoretician, Arthur C. Danto, who in his latest book, Madonna of the Future, observes:
In textbook-termed Surrealism, Automatism, within conventional visual space, plays a significant role. De Chirico, was an earlier, independent painter; and only later and for a while a reluctant fellow-traveller -- not Surrealist, but of a very different Scuola Metafisica. Dali, the subject of Danto's essay cited above, feeling Automatism as too passive, nebulous, drifted into his own production art. But, Danto cites writer Dawn Ades quoting poet Louis Aragon who "noted how Dali, instead of using collage as an element that contradicted and conflicted with the unity of the picture surface... deliberately concealed it, and made the surface as uniform as possible, to such an extent that in reproduction it is often quite impossible to detect the pasted-on bits." Among artists, there is always divergence and dissent.
The need for a prologue, and Danto's own genealogy of quotes are significant. 'Surrealism' is at once used as a catchall term; and at the same time seen as a merely historical phenomenon. It needn't be. And Surrealist Experiences pays regard to neither. Penelope Rosemont did meet for a time with Andre and Elisa Breton (as well as with Man Ray, Toyen, and more, in this anthology inter alia) in Paris, at the exhibition, L'Ecart absolu [Absolute Divergence: 1965-66] and this period is documented in Rosemont's Surrealist Women: An Anthology (University of Texas Press: 1998). Penelope Rosemont still works within an ongoing Breton-esque tradition, albeit with forays beyond. (One criticism of Surrealism historically is that imposes its own limitations.) And so, with all preface... just what is the content of Surrealist Experiences...?
There is the art; the writing; and -- as an aftermath -- the theory it inspires; both in word and playfulness of media.
The art... begins with At the Rendezvous of the Re-enchanters (1991), the volume's frontispiece. Heavens and geology, the moon as focus, and geology again: and between the interstices, a unified synthesis of disparate parts into a polished image. Such "Landscapades" are a genre among many media and image investigations of the artist, and she herself characterizes this avenue of work as:
The work documented in her chapter "Beyond Collage," in spirit, continues true to the course set by Andre Breton and his Surrealism: subliminal, perceptual, Automatist, and, though at times linked to the 'literary,' it is basically antipathetic to overt conventions and authority. Furthermore, however, much like Dali's own divergence, it reveals a polish and concern with painterly effect: the 'collage' of image is transformed into an integrated albeit dream-like vision. The 'seams' are not apparent. There is much of this approach in Rosemont's images: a divergence from Duchamp and Max Ernst (heirs of Dada), and affinities with Dali's course (a reworked, painterly refinement of image). (Whenever did art defer to theoretical dictates?) At the Rendezvous of the Re-enchanters, like a Sixties psychedelic vision of the American Southwest, assumes its own reality. It can be granted that; and what it is asserts its own validity: a sight unreal, but consistent to itself. Landscapades are "the landscape at play."
The Red Magician postulates another viewing point. One point of Surrealism is that immediate perception and act points to revealed actuality (which is debatable, and yet produces much result; and the results themselves are subject to review -- thus Surrealism). The Red Magician does raise a question. It sets out an image (and only a manipulated image) of rhinoceros, sunglasses, and darkened, fabricated ground. Most viewers do discern a face as well. The question, a very Surrealist query, is why -- by just what protocols -- do we perceive such attendant images, say, in clouds ("That one is a cat, and that, a 'face'..."). It is a puzzlement with a long history in Western art; and, currently, expanded into ads and logos, animation and cartoons: and as such, not quite to be dismissed. It has effects. A few abbreviated lines -- and those properly prepared -- present a 'Smiley Face.' The Surrealist gambit is not quite so bizarre or so diffuse as first might seem. Certainly, the results of Rosemont's art engage and intrigue.
And how can a reader respond to the texts? Some are, quite obviously, anecdotal, or historical account. Chapters such as "Surrealism=MC(squared)", "Maxwell Street in the Sixties", or "Citizen Train Defends the Haymarket Anarchists", all record a personal history. But real history it is, and well of note. Surrealist Experiences, as well, includes Surrealist perambulations of the writing pen. And what-the-hell that means is this: a la Breton, the book is full of playful, whither-goes-it prose.
A reader who seeks in Surrealist writing Aristotlean explanations or definitions as per Descartes, will be frustrated; the writing follows true to its own art, that is, it exemplifies the 'rationale' which wavers just beneath explication -- like our non-Euclidean geometries, contradictory to each other and yet all with a utility. Surrealist writing balks at the phrase 'concrete validity.'
Surrealism has been particularly innovative in media such as collaged image, mixed media assemblage, photography; and its most enduring concerns touch upon Automatism, and perceptional psychologies. As an intent, Surrealism has natural sympathies for political anarchism, frequent allies among varied Progressive or Leftist agendas, and has sought to subvert orthodoxies, artistic and societal. Whether in this year AD 2000 one counts Surrealism a major stream, or a persistent side current in contemporary art and writing, it continues with a surprising viability. Surrealism is alive and well in Chicago. It has left a trail: Surrealist Experiences, an anthology of images and writing by Penelope Rosemont.
At present, there are at least three Surrealistic currents active in Chicago: "The Very Secret Order of the Lamprey" in East Pilsen (closer to Dada and Duchamp); and several who exhibit among the Uncomfortable Spaces (Vide: past www.artscope.net reviews of "Textbook of Insanity," or "Dysfunctional Toasters.") The artists and writers of Black Swan Press are closest in spirit to Andre Breton, Tristan Tzara, a bit of Max Ernst.... SURREALIST EXPERIENCES: 1001 Dawns, 221 Midnights, by Penelope Rosemont (Foreword by Rikki Ducornet) is available from Black Swan Press/ Chicago Surrealist Editions, P.O. Box 6424, Evanston, Illinois 60204. It is an interesting book, and worth the fourteen dollars, plus two more for postage and handling.
--G. Jurek Polanski