“Unconscious Unbound: Surrealism in America” at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery

Willem de Kooning, Self Portrait with Gull and Nautical Theme (c. 1941), tempera on board, 21-1/2″ x 14-1/2″; courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery

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The influence of Surrealism on American art is seen to sweeping effect in Unconscious Unbound: Surrealism in America, an ambitious if spotty exhibition at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery. It’s ambitious because Rosenfeld is striving to expand the parameters of American modernism, long this gallery’s mission. It’s spotty because few schools of art have lent themselves as readily to hokum as Surrealism. Plumbing icky psychological depths has proven to be more a conduit to kitsch than a clarifying light on the human animal.

Unconscious Unbound includes a fair share of groaners, works whose earnest sophistication and meticulous execution can’t obscure outmoded pretensions. This is particularly true of paintings that tend toward Surrealism’s illustrative wing, as epitomized by Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte. Weird and sometimes psychedelic dreamscapes by Dorothea Tanning, Pavel Tchelitchew, Alfonso Ossorio, Helen Lundeberg and Eugene Berman are rarely more than derivative and often less than that.

It’s hard to believe that the brittle theatricality of Federico Castellon’s “Veronica’s Veil” would jolt anyone’s sense of propriety, save that of a precocious adolescent or a heavy metal band in need of cover art. Exceptions can be made for John Wilde’s “Wildehouse,” an erotic reverie that has something of the fever pitch typical of folk art, and Willem de Kooning’s “Self-Portrait With Gull and Nautical Theme,” a rarely seen mural study that evinces an American master still in formation.

The de Kooning reminds us that Surrealism’s impact on Abstract Expressionism was decisive. If there are no New York School masterpieces on display, there are stirring examples by signature figures struggling with precedent. Jackson Pollock, Norman Lewis, Mark Rothko, Arshile Gorky and Seymour Lipton are seen in transition, but their efforts are propulsive and gritty; the pieces are significant for the aesthetic and historical shifts they portend.

The exhibition’s finest moments fly under the radar, chief among them Charles Howard’s cartoony riff on Miró, Gerome Kamrowski’s puzzle-box meditation on root vegetables and William Baziotes’ “Star Figure,” a galumphing biomorph that comes on like a cross between an accusatory Cyclops and an attention-deprived puppy. It is within the quieter and quirkier precincts of Surrealism that Unconscious Unbound finds its most gratifying reasons for being.

© 2010 Mario Naves

Originally published in the April 20, 2010 edition of City Arts.


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