Surrealism Surprises at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago

René Magritte, Les merveilles de la nature (The Wonders of Nature), 1953. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, gift of Joseph and Jory Shapiro. © 2015 C. Herscovici/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Nathan Keay. © MCA Chicago.

In the art world over the past decade or so, Surrealism has somewhat fallen out of favor. Its rather maligned reputation may be the result of its popular resurrection in lowbrow art, which has become saturated with less talented imitators in the last few years. Or perhaps Surrealism's insistence on the psychological, symbolic, personal and emotional is simply off trend at the moment, as the art world favors works that are more detached, or more formal, or more political, or more process-oriented. Even the word "surreal," likely due to its widespread adoption in popular parlance, is used with a measure of hesitance lately when describing contemporary art.

Gladys Nilsson, Giant Byrd, 1971. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, gift of Herbert Gibbs. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

At the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, however, curator Lynne Warren shows a more expansive vision of Surrealism, surpassing tidy preconceptions and dismissive attitudes. From the museum collection, Surrealism: The Conjured Life assembles a remarkably diverse and striking display of works, from the movement's origins in the 1930s to present day, demonstrating its deep inter-generational influence and continued relevance. Here, Surrealism's tenets are shown to be deeply rooted in experimentation -- with imagery and juxtaposition, of course, but also with unusual materials and media. In this fascinating exhibition, Warren finds undercurrents of the surreal coursing through artworks one would not usually associate with Surrealism, deftly expanding the definition whilst introducing a wide range of works, in over 100 paintings, sculptures, photographs, drawings and installations.

Installation view, Surrealism: The Conjured Life, MCA Chicago. Nov 21, 2015 -- Jun 5, 2016. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

This is a massive show, compacted into a modest space in the museum. Yet the individual works' considerable punch is not lessened by a sense of overcrowding -- on the contrary, the works seem to draw strength from the close proximity to their neighbors. One can almost feel a convivial chatter rise up between the works as they dialogue between each other. This arrangement demonstrates that the power of Surrealism derives from the imagery contained within each work, and not necessarily from its context or the space around it. (Contrast this with the Kathryn Andrews exhibition, Run For President, across the hall, where each work demands a great amount of space and/or scale for contemplation.)

Paul Delvaux, Penelope, 1945. Collection of Museum Contemporary Art Chicago, gift of Joseph and Jory Shapiro, 1998.36. © 2015 Foundation Paul Delvaux, Sint-Idesbald - ARS/SABAM Belgium. Photo © MCA Chicago.

Surrealism: The Conjured Life centers on a spiral-shaped gallery in the center of the room, containing historical examples of Surrealism's past, from René Magritte to Leonora Carrington. The gallery's rich purple walls accent the robes of the mystically regal figure in Paul Delvaux's 1945 painting Penelope, as well as the gold, rosy pink and vivid tangerine of an evocative Yves Tanguy abstraction. As the spiral continues, more contemporary works by international artists engage in a visual dialogue with their historical precedents: a large-scale Cindy Sherman and a series of Francesca Woodman photographs speak across the aisle to an eccentric Claude Cahun portrait; a menacingly large, devilish face peers out of a Mark Grotjahn painting, recalling the puppet-like impasto features of Enrico Baj's 1961 Angry General with Decorations, hung just around the spiraling corridor.

Installation view, Surrealism: The Conjured Life, MCA Chicago. Nov 21, 2015 -- Jun 5, 2016. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

Outside the spiral, the gallery explodes with strange, eye-catching and unfamiliar works. These range from the grotesque and comical -- Joseph Seigenthaler's life-size, hyperrealistic ceramic figures, The Couple (1993), and an inscrutable, nightmarish Frankenstein's monster scene by Donald Roller Wilson teeter on the edge of good taste -- to the light and fanciful. A long, two-sided illustration by Chicago's own outsider marvel, Henry Darger, enchants with its vivid, dreamlike scenes of his Vivian Girls. Overhead, on the other side of the gallery, an ethereally beautiful and simple construction by Gabriel Orozco, made of delicate feathers, like leaves attached to tree twigs and hung from the ceiling, flutters tantalizingly in the soft currents of air in the gallery.

Ed Paschke, Sunburn, 1970. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, gift of Muriel and Albert Newman in honor of Dennis Adrian. Photo: Nathan Keay. © MCA Chicago.

The gallery's perimeter walls are devoted to Chicago artists -- a dazzling and diverse array from the museum's holdings. The Chicago Imagists owed a great debt to Surrealism, and they are well represented here: in the wild colors and cartoonish figures of Ed Paschke and Jim Nutt; the biomorphic abstractions of Gladys Nilsson and Barbara Rossi; the grotesquerie of Don Baum and Leon Golub; the anthropomorphism of H.C. Westermann. Surrealist tendencies run deep in Chicago, however, beyond the work of the Imagists alone. One of the most impressive works here is an installation by Mexican-born, Chicago-based artist Marcos Raya, centered on a painting of the artist, dark sunglasses on, lying on a hospital bed, with an amorphous, organic form lying at his feet, an impassive doctor by his side looking directly at the viewer, and other unsettling elements, some of which -- an armless, masked mannequin, some surgical instruments -- appear in an arrangement of physical objects around or in front of the canvas.

Marcos Raya, Night Nurse, 1993/1996. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Restricted gift of Roy and Mary Cullen. Photo: James Isberner. © MCA Chicago.

One of the exhibition's greatest strengths is in the wealth of women artists included. Some of the strongest paintings in the classical Surrealist section come courtesy of Leonora Carrington (her bizarre bird-human hybrid is marvelously strange) and Dorothea Tanning (this reclining nude with abstract forms manifesting over her eyes is surely one of the most evocative representations of the dream state). Sleek works by Chicago Imagists Christina Ramberg and Barbara Rossi look effortlessly timeless here. Lee Bontecou's suspended sculpture appears like the dream of a future space vessel sailing through the cosmos. And a grouping of small paintings, produced in the 1940s and 50s, in one corner of the gallery are revealed to be the strange, spare, psychological visions of Gertrude Abercrombie, an autodidact known in Chicago as "the other Gertrude" for her legendary salon parties filled with Chicago artists and jazz musicians.

Christina Ramberg, Muscular Alternative, 1979. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Bequest of Sandra Jorgensen, Photo: Nathan Keay. © MCA Chicago.

Surrealism: The Conjured Life is a wild ride. While the exhibition itself spins and spirals, each individual work provides a proverbial "rabbit hole" to lose oneself in. This thoughtfully curated exhibition offers a dynamic viewing experience, while amply demonstrating the strength and diversity of the museum's collection, and celebrating the richness of Chicago's local art history. Exhibitions like this, which reappraise an entire genre of art with a fresh, forward-looking view, provide rich opportunities to view older works with new eyes and open new avenues of interpretation into newer ones.

Installation view, Surrealism: The Conjured Life, MCA Chicago. Nov 21, 2015--Jun 5, 2016. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

--Natalie Hegert