Upon entering the gallery, there is an immediate sense of a warped reality. Emerging through the off-centered door, a daunting purple wall confronts the viewer, bearing the title and description of the exhibit while hindering a clear sight of the gallery’s entirety. Glimpsing beyond this barrier, the remainder of the gallery boldly, yet enigmatically, presents itself. Rows of a seducing red walls angle towards the back of the gallery, establishing a tunnel that inherently sucks the viewer inward.
Real/Surreal, a circulating loan exhibition from the Whitney Museum of American Art, currently adorns the main galleries of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Featuring American art from years before, during and after World War II, the exhibit navigates the tightrope that slightly, and dangerously, separates the real from the imagined—the rational from the insane. This fine line incorporates and blends genres of social realism, magical realism, and, of course, surrealism. Through diverse styles of representation, the exhibit does not focus solely on the distorted abstraction associated with surrealism (no, there are not any melting clocks for you Dalí fans); rather, it reveals the American reactions to this European movement as well as a strong degree of representational paintings that maintain an alignment with an observable actuality.
Despite the congruence with reality, the realist tradition of the exhibit presents an interpreted reality that is both subversive and ‘realistic,’ such as George Tooker’s “The Subway,” (1950). A painting that forefronts the exhibition, “The Subway” precisely renders a New York subway, and although the spatial recession, careful shading and relatable setting establish a literal depiction, there is an eerie suspicion amplified by a paranoid imagination. Consequently, the scene has a nightmarish effect and leaves the viewer with an unsettling feeling. Similarly, Francis Criss’ “Astor Place,” (1932) depicts a recognizable city scene containing two nuns; yet, the isolation creates an ominous and troubling effect. Realism begins to merge with the macabre in Philip Evergood’s “Lily and the Sparrows,” (1939). Drawing from an actual experience, Evergood depicts a young girl in the window of an apartment; however, the girl appears as possessed or ghoulish, making the image very disturbing.
Greater alignments within the Surrealist practice are Yves Tanguy, Federico Castellón, and Man Ray. Tanguy’s “The Wish,” (1949) explores a realm of unconsciousness that combines odd figures that emphasize a vertical abstraction of sharp angles. Despite recognizable shapes, the desolate scene is incongruent with the known world, suggestive of something apocalyptic or alien. Castellón’s “The Dark Figure,” (1938) presents a cryptic woman completely cloaked in black. Distorted hoops, dismembered arms, and the head of the artist situate behind the woman along with a looming, gray sky. The painting poses more questions than it answers, leading the viewer further into the confusing depths of another’s imagination. Man Ray’s “La Fortune,” (1938) displays a billiard table with a sharp angled projection alongside playfully colored clouds in a barren landscape. The odd assortment within the composition presents a disjointed reality skewed from practicality.
Although Real/Surreal is a traveling exhibit, its display at the MMoCA does not simply replicate its prior organization at the Whitney, emphasized by the opening night dialogue between MMoCA Curator Richard H. Axsom and Whitney Curator Carter Foster. Although Foster conceived the Real/Surreal and curated its original manifestation, Axsom coordinated its installation at MMoCA, which intrinsically transformed the exhibit into an altered display. In addition to a different physical space and the inclusion of select pieces from MMoCA’s permanent collection, the exhibit naturally manifests in a unique form compared to its original as its development is through the viewpoint of a different individual and institution. Despite the regularity of this phenomenon amongst all traveling shows, the intents and themes of the art further epitomize the subjectivity of perspective. Through the countless and differing states of representation presented in each painting, a new conception of reality emerges within each frame. Therefore, as each artist of the period imposes a unique identity onto a seemingly objective ‘reality,’ just as the curator displays an intrinsically manipulated production from the prototype.
From the art itself to the composition of the gallery, emotive disconcertment evades the entire exhibition. Real/Surreal exudes an uncanny discomfort indicative of the ability for one’s bizarre imagination to pervert the subjective actuality into an unstable existence. As a result, reality becomes a changeable mindset rather than an absolute fact.