April 25, 2011

Keeping it Surreal

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Surrealism relies on contradictions. The abnormal cased within the normal, a detached prosthetic leg lying in the middle of an average city street. That’s not a metaphor, that’s a picture in the exhibit by Leon Levinstein. It would be a good metaphor though. Regardless, surrealism does not attempt to resolve contradictions, but rather makes them more pronounced. The Johnson’s new exhibit, “Surreal/Subjective: Photographic Gifts from Alumni,” ­­here until June 18th, displays many examples of contradiction in surreal photography.

The poster picture for the exhibit is Meghan Boody’s “Night is generally my time for walking,” 2006. It is an expansive color print, a single massive flame tearing through the middle of the house dominating the background against a rich blue sky. The foreground presents an arid landscape marked by pools of water and jutting stones, with hints of blues and reds and greens. And at the very bottom of the picture, center right, a girl steps towards us in a brown shawl and blue dress, utterly emotionless. The violence of the fire against the tranquility of the water, the painful blues against the sanguine reds and oranges, the artificial house and the natural landscape, the picture is a montage of juxtapositions.

As Nancy E. Green writes in the introduction to the exhibit, “Surreal/Subjective looks at how photographic artists in the twentieth century contorted as well as perceived reality, so that the final images are both imaginative and cerebral, connecting to the viewer on different levels.” This is obviously true of Meghan Boody’s piece, which has strong formal and thematic purposes. But as a whole, the pictures presented in the exhibit do show many thematic concerns. The interactions with reality that Green mentions often manifest themselves as the relation between the natural and the artificial worlds. One photo shows men dragging a carpet of grass across a barren field, dressed in business suits. An untitled gelatin silver print by the important surrealist photographer Hans Bellmer, from the series “Jeux de la Poupée,” shows two pairs of legs stacked against a tree. Though there is no motion, Bellmer’s famous use of dolls is erotic and visceral, and forces an electric polarity to the tree.

The physical arrangement of the photos is such that they casually flow from one to the other along the walls of the gallery, making it a genuine pleasure just to move along and follow the path the photos are taking. The casual introduction of a branch becomes a tree in the next photo, which adds a dress that becomes girl on lawn, until you have gone from doll’s legs to beachgoers to completely abstract pieces of shadow and light.

While most times negligible, as always seems to be the case, lighting became an issue for a couple of the framed prints. Though normally not worth mentioning, one print by Michael Eastman, “Isabella’s Two Chairs,” a picture of an expansive and dilapidated room, was so troubled by poor lighting that I was left staring at my beautiful reflection instead of the beautiful print. A quick search on Google was able to show me everything I missed.

The necessity of seeing photos in a museum can draw a skepticism usually avoided by other mediums. To us, photos mean reproducibility, and it can seem unnecessary to go to a museum to see what should be the same on the computer screen. But, when the lighting is right, seeing the work in person is still a different experience. It is a question of scale — the prints are often much larger than any computer screen. Photographers such as Meghan Boody and Gregory Crewdson, who are also represented at the exhibit, take advantage of the size of their prints to create carefully detailed pieces that cannot be fully appreciated, when scaled down. So unless you have the thousands of dollars necessary to buy a full-scale print, a trip to the Johnson might be the only way to make your life little more surreal.

Original Author: Ian Walker Sperber