This lady in red ain’t sexy. She’s scared stiff. Her troubled blue eyes dart sideways as trench-coated men loom behind her in a chilly, subterranean subway. Her right hand curves protectively around her belly.
But why? The Stepford commuters, their eyes fixed on their own unseen threats, are immune to her panic. They skulk in cell-like phone booths, hunch behind a barred gate, slump before a sharp-spiked turnstile. Observe the paranoia in their eyes.
All of them—the non-bombshell and the trenchcoats—seem braced for the final tick of a bomb in the claustrophobic station. Yet there is no way to flee the explosion.
Realist painter George Tooker scoffed at critics who pigeonholed him as a Surrealist for his haunting paintings like The Subway (1950), the eerie work that greets visitors to Real/Surreal at Grand Rapids Art Museum. His visions of urban alienation were grounded in his grim Cold War era.
“I am after painting reality impressed on the mind so hard that it returns as a dream, but I am not after painting dreams as such, or fantasy,” the artist once said.
With apologies to this overlooked genius, who died last year at age 90, the real can blur into unreal, with unsettling results. As Freud has stated, the uncanny happens when “the distinction between imagination and reality is effaced.”
In short, Real/Surreal, on loan from the Whitney Museum of Modern Art, is deliciously twisted. Think a still-life of a dead crow, a billiards table creeping like the prehistoric amphibian onto dry land, a jagged cityscape of knife-like buildings. Opposites attract, interact, and the viewer reacts.
For GRAM director and CEO Dana Friis-Hansen, therein lies the unsettling, Twilight Zone-esque charm of Real/Surreal, on the first stop of a national tour. The 60 masterpieces bridge two styles of art that rose to prominence in Depression-era America in the 1930s and peaked in the post-war 1950s.
Realism sired 20th-century greats like Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth and Philip Evergood, who toyed with finding the uncanny in the everyday. Meanwhile, Surrealism spawned giants like Man Ray and Joseph Cornell, who juxtaposed familiar and otherworldly images in distorted perspectives. Yet the result is the same: mind-blowing alternate realities.
Other featured artists include Paul Cadmus, Spanish-American artist Federico Castellon, Kay Sage, Yves Tanguy, and Chicago’s Ivan Albright, best known for The Picture of Dorian Gray.
The show “helps us see that realism and surrealism are more connected than originally we had thought," Friis-Hansen says. "It challenges the boundaries and the categories.”
Compared to European surrealists like Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dalí, whose works skewed political and artistic conceits, the American Realists and Surrealists honed in on everyday life, channeling the anxieties of their times—the Depression, World War II, the Cold War—into their work, says associate curator Cindy Buckner.
Members of both groups also leaned toward egg tempera, a yolk-laced painting style that allowed for subtle, concise brushstrokes favored by the Renaissance arts. Displayed side by side, their modern subjects depicted with Middle Ages grace are in the same, psychologically charged dream-camp. “You can feel the same eerie quality,” Buckner says.
Both factions also treasured their independence. “The artists would say, ‘I’m not a Surrealist or a Realist. I’m something in between,’" Buckner explains. “There were not a lot of American artists who considered themselves Surrealists. That was considered a European movement. Americans would say they were inspired by the Surrealists. There was more competition between representational and abstract artists at the time.”
The second of three shows presented through a three-year partnership with the Whitney, Real/Surreal divides paintings, prints and photos into five categories: Alone in a Crowd, Conjured Dreamscape, Observed Places, Questioning Faith and Innocence, and Un-Still Lives. Each group segues into the next, allowing visitors to go with the trippy flow. It’s a very short trip from Tooker’s subway to the dead crow.
Surprise, the crow, from his staring eye to his glossy tail, is the work of Wyeth, he of the romantic Christina’s World (1948) and sensual Helga paintings. In fact, Buckner notes, the corpse lies in state in dry grasses of strangely familiar hills. “It could be to the left of Christina’s World,” she says.
So much for writing off Wyeth as a slick populist cashing in on the rural landscapes of his native Pennsylvania. To underscore the artist’s brittle sense of humor, Buckner hung Winter Fields (1942) next to a painting of a menacing scarecrow. “The scarecrow scared the crow to death,” she jokes.
In life, the crow would have felt at home in Hopper’s nearby oils, Cape Cod Sunset (1934) and Seven A.M. (1948). Both paintings show a deserted-looking building—a home and a shop, respectively—bordered by woods, dark and deep. Their moods are ambiguous, the landscapes, refugees from a film noir.
What sets the disciplines apart is the element of subconscious fantasy unique to Surrealism. Evergood combined both fantasy and social realism in his cartoon-like paintings to comment on the human condition. In Lily and the Sparrows, a goblin of a child, her oversized head framed in a tenement window, feeds bread to birds circling her head like a halo. Her grotesque poverty eclipses the tenderness of the scene: a little girl sharing her crust of bread with the birds.
When it comes to mind-bending fantasy, Man Ray’s famous La Fortune (1930) exemplifies Surrealism. The masterpiece shows a billiards table, raised on its front legs, seeming to contemplate a gray, distant horizon brightened by crayon-colored clouds. Three balls—a red and two white ones—cling to its lawn-green felt like a symbiotic species, like tick birds on the back of a rhinoceros. The anthropomorphic central figure is accessible, the situation, confounding.
The artists enjoying pushing limits as well as pushing viewers to dream up their own narrative, Friis-Hansen says. A good way to start: Consider the artwork’s date.
For example, La Fortune (“luck” in French), was painted in 1938, when unemployment hovered at 20 percent and the Depression-weary nation faced one of the worst droughts in history. The billiards table, a sign of luxury, could represent hopes of prosperity. The extra white cue ball could be interpreted as a second chance to knock the red into the corner pocket. Maybe America was teetering on the brink of victory. But wouldn’t that be cheating? And are those candy-colored clouds cheerful? Or are they toxic fumes, a symbol of perils of industrialization?
The sheer size of the table “puts you into the middle of a game you don’t understand,” Friis-Hansen says. “There’s no one answer, especially with Surrealist art. That’s the pleasure. While sometimes it may be frustrating, everyone should come to this exhibition with an open mind and a willingness to enjoy their own experience as they engage—and even enter—the realms conjured up by paintings. If you come to it as a journey, you’ll never forget it.”
An interactive gallery will accompany the exhibition, where visitors can play architect in one of Sage’s interactive landscapes, pressing shapes onto a vertical wall to design their own sharp and pointy city.
The complementary exhibition Salvador Dalí's Twelve Tribes of Israel is on view throughout the duration of Real/Surreal. The companion show features a restrained series of prints by the mustached maverick famous for melting clocks and deconstructed females. The twelve-work series marks GRAM’s contribution to the city’s 2012 Year of Interfaith Understanding.