Posts Tagged ‘Surrealism’


From our Evanston Art Center mansion by the lighthouse, we have a view of the lake and the 14MayPlugByTheSeaStartbeach. The lake and sky always play with color effects for us to gasp at. We get horizontal stripes, basically, and you might think those would make for a boring, too restful, composition. Well, yes, relentless horizontality can be challenging, but a challenge like that gets you thinking about your assumptions.
Bruce Boyer started with this recognizable sky-water-beach composition. Nice, low horizon, very comfortable and serene. Just for kicks we 14MayPlugByTheSeaStartUSDturned the canvas around. Now we have a high horizon with a yellow sky and a sunset-colored beach. Too weird, not realistic at all. Your mind then tries to see this thing as pure stripes: yellow, blue, pink-ish. You try. But the texture in the blue stripe is unmistakably watery and your imagination can’t let go of that association. That association overrides all the color weirdness of the yellow sky and pink beach because the mind really is attached to realism and is desperate to identify something with a name. Ah, lake! The lake is still there. From that assumption, all else falls into place.
14MayPlugByTheSea2But Bruce Boyer does not let it rest there. He needs a twist of irony, some semiotic double-coding, something to jab at your assumptions. Let’s play in the semiotics sandbox and put something on that beach. Something totally disassociated, something not from nature, something rectilinear, mechanical, man-made…the plug appears from nowhere and, behold, it’s just right.

Well, it’s just right if you get Magritte and have a few brain cells that conduct surrealism for you. If you do, stay tuned. If you don’t, ditto.
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For the Dadaists and the Surrealists in the early part of the 20th century, collaging was at the core of their working process.  Collage is quintessentially modern.  It claims that this piece of junk and that scrap of paper are actually connected and that if you put them together and play with their juxtaposition on your work surface, your mind will go into a kind of overdrive and you will attain a level of awareness that is not accessible to you if you stick to the culturally established rules of logic and acceptability.  As educated, competent people we tend to resist collage.  It seems silly, anarchist, threatening.  When I spread a pile of magazine clippings on a long work table, however, my students faced the challenge with the seriousness of, errrm, educated, competent people.  I’ve talked about the collaging process before (see Nov 15 post) and have previously mentioned that some students found the work difficult at first.  But the Surrealists may have been on to something in their hope of opening up different levels of awareness, because in the last hour of our collaging class the work just flowed.  Snippets, blobs, strips and swatches of paper found their “selective affinities” without having to be rubber stamped by the logical categorizing of narrow rationality.  (See earlier posts on collage and From Collage to Painting)

In that intense state of awareness (Keats called it “negative attention”) the mind creates patterns that it does not rationalize as patterns—because it has no time to do that—but that nevertheless are perceived as absolutely right. Only later, in a reflective mood, can we ask, well, why is this so good.  When that happens, the work has achieved an autonomy that challenges you—even though YOU are the one who made it.  The work, in other words, has something to teach you, the maker.  The work is bigger than you.

When Noami dashed off this collage in a few minutes towards the end of class, she was not aware of the repetition of a form that makes the whole thing come together.  She was not deliberating; she was acting intuitively out of her by now intense visual awareness.  She did not deliberately set out to create a composition that would consist entirely of the Y shape. The Y shape kept finding itself.  When she put down the black Y (here with a photoshopped  #1 next to it)  she undoubtedly associated it to a tree, since a prominent tree  shape has been a motif in all her landscape paintings.  The diagonally placed Y in the middle (#2) probably associates to some kind of hilly landscape in the distance.  The horizontal Y at the bottom (#3) is just a couple of strips, but notice at the right the strips converge in a Y. In #4 at the top we get an intimation of the Y, a scattering of parts.  If the fragments in #4 were connected, the game might easily become too obvious and therefore no game at all. #4 is proof of the intuitive pudding:  it tells us that the artist was not working according to a formula.

What we get, then, is one vertical Y and three horizontal Y’s.  Notice that the horizontal Y’s are all chopped—vertically.  The eye, therefore, is never blocked.  We are always moving THROUGH the painting. When in painting the central passage of the #2 Y, one of the black vertical lines got too heavy, it attracted attention to itself and therefore blocked the eye’s movement.  When thinned, the line kept its chopping function without stealing the show.

The collage just fell into place, the painting just happened.  It all seemed so easy.  But I would like to point out here that none of this was actually easy in a trivial sense.  The collage and the painting came about because of the work that was done to attain this intense state of awareness.

(Please note:  I apologize for the glare in the photo of the painting. Size of painting, about 20 x 16.  Oil on canvas. “Selective affinities” comes from Goethe)

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