A fellow art critic and writer here in Cincinnati contacted me after visiting U.turn's opening for Jessie Bowie's exhibition Don't Be Scared Be Prepared. She began an engaging dialogue about Surrealism, a supposed Neo-Surrealism, and Jessie's exhibition. I wrote her a reply that you can read below. I wanted to continue this conversation in response to Kathy's post on her blog, the Cincinnati Art Snob. Maybe read her post (an adaptation of her e-mail) and then my repsonse?
i am so glad that you e-mailed and sought dialogue. i think we would agree that the resulting conversations are among the goals of visual art. in all honesty, i too have actively avoided Surrealism throughout most of my time in the arts. sometime (maybe in future parts of this conversation) i can go into specifics about what repelled me from Surrealism.
Did you see the Surrealism exhibition at the CAM? I thought that was a beautiful (and controversial) show.
In recent years, I have started to break down a somewhat arbitrary category dubbed Surrealism (i.e., not everyone who is remembered as one of the surrealists were (a) a signed member of Breton's group or (b) ever actually making work the way surrealists said on should make work.
I started to find that there were what I think of as "fringe surrealists" that I could actively engage with, even swoon over. Their work continues to be very psychological, not just willy-nilly dripping clocks and all that. Who I am thinking of here would be Joseph Cornell, early Giacometti (he was actually kicked out of the surrealists), Rene Magritte and Jean Arp. While leaning against some of the principals that the surrealists put forth (a connection to the subconscious, the effectiveness of juxtapositions in imagery (collage exploded during surrealism and dada!)), these four (and others) are actually very structured thinkers who paid attention to the organization of information inside their works.
i think i'll bring Jessie Bowie up now specifically, and i might get to what could be said about surrealistic-APPEARING things in contemporary art.
this might be cheating, but i'm going to paste what i wrote about jessie in the press release into this part of the response:
U · turn is proud to present Don’t Be Scared Be Prepared, which features the work of Miami, Florida based artist Jessie Bowie. Bowie received her BFA from Ringling College and has recently participated in a residency in New York City. In her first solo exhibition in the Midwest, Bowie will be presenting a body of work comprised of both pen and ink drawings and site-specific wall paintings. The former are dense with detail and exude an impulsive, paranoid approach to the ideation and creative processes. Painting, in contrast, is a markedly populist activity as Bowie uses it. Her wall paintings call the training of her hand into question, instead celebrating a sloppiness that may be more conventional for hand painted signs than for traditional, high art techniques. Served together, her intricate drawings function as contained hypothetical realities in contrast to the maximalist aesthetics at work in her installations and site-specific wall works.
Bowie draws in absolute liberation. The defined, hatched mark making with which she realizes absurd or nightmarish scenarios are reminiscent of cartoon illustration or film storyboarding. Bowie is like a child who refuses to go into the ocean after seeing Jaws for the first time, and her artmaking reflects that worrisome outlook. Her drawings depict everyday folk located in the midst of critical plot twists and dénouements for narratives that Bowie has constructed only for the duration of the artwork; missing explanations for surrealistic elements in play and uncertain conclusions to these dramas confirm the works as mental flashes in a mind drunk off of pop cultural imagery and concerned about the implications of just about everything.
Jessie Bowie is a jester whose special talent is to look at our world’s past and present without actually looking at it, as if staring at a Gorgon’s reflection in a mirror, so as not to be turned to stone. Rather than confront her stimuli head on, Bowie is an experienced escapist who retreats into realms of astounding intricacy and unexpected, obscure metaphor. To call her work ‘gut wrenching’ is not to over-dramatize the point, but to identify a place of violent extremes that she frequently suggests. Sci-fi monsters, cowboys, and menageries of extinct behemoths, exotic zoo animals and frizzy house pets populate her dreamlike alternative dimensions. Beget by Surrealist Leonora Carrington’s penchant for suspense and ambiguity and Hieronymus Bosch’s fey wit and sense of action, Bowie represents a startlingly contemporary fantasy on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Tales left inchoate frame mysterious problems rather than presenting concrete solutions. When real world events, celebrities and global epidemics do make cameo appearances, they are jarring additions to the scenery. A bounty of associations and appropriations subvert singular readings, and our attempts to formulate such prove daunting. This exhibition is built from flagrant attempts and failures to cope by means both distracted and determined in a world out of control.
It is the start of that third paragraph that I have continued to find MOST true about her and her work as I’ve worked with her throughout the week. Jessie’s work is not Surrealism through and through, in that her purposes are not related to the collision of dreams and the subconscious. She works with contrivances; there is strategy to what she makes happen inside the drawings. I’ll offer this conversation as an example. I LOVE the shrine to Prince. I think it is a fascinating piece, what with the purple rain pattern and Prince depicted as a sphinx. What I brought up with Jessie as she completed it in the space was that I felt this was a sly comment about Michael Jackson rather than Prince. A shrine to Prince at the end of 2009, days after the MJ film was released, is about more than Prince; it deals with a larger strata about the worship of musicians (and musicians come up frequently in Jessie’s work- almost always rock and roll or heavy metal). She agreed that this was the larger goal of that piece.
I encourage you to consider her work as something that is far from random. If one does, especially a thinker, a hunter for meaning within art like yourself, the drawings are rife with patterns that can start to build a logic within Bowie’s terms. For example, I have found strong gender roles in her work. The men are always warriors, hunters, barbarians, Vikings, zombies, etc. The men are always armed and usually on the site of bloodshed. In contrast, every appearance of a woman in the exhibition is paired with a grove of bare branched trees. The women are usually nude and modest like images of Eve, and are usually seen with small woodland animals like foxes (and Bowie’s renderings of foxes are particularly beautiful drawings). Jessie almost always draws the large, safari-type animals running towards the left side of the paper, so that there is really a suggested stampede in whatever space they are presented (and could even be compared to the riots of animals on cave walls that were also composed with strong directionality).
Jessie Bowie’s work is great to psychoanalyze, which is an approach to art interpretation that I am personally very interested in.
One more thing I just want to toss out there for both of us to think about is the medium specificity of Jessie’s work. That she works in these drawings on mostly undefined blank sheets of paper, I think, regards the content as hypotheses and story-telling, almost like the concocted tales told around campfires. I don’t think Jessie is trying to invent entire other worlds of fantasy, rather these pen drawings on paper are annotations that refer back to the real world. They are like daydreams, and to some extent, even resemble the properties of daydreams doodled during a class- the pen, the paper: these ready materials.
As far as a general neo-surrealism taking place, I would agree insofar as I have seen artists everywhere (maybe even more in New York than in the Midwest) borrowing from Surrealistic uses of juxtaposition. I am a little hesitant to group what I might see as several different practices going on right now into a single movement. One hypothesis that I might offer is that young, visionary artists have been interested in portraying other realities because the past decade’s reality of Bush has been more of a nightmare to them/everyone than the Boschian scenes they depict. I think fantasy goes on the rise whenever reality sucks.
If I was to suggest any follow up texts etc. I might suggest one essay in the Unmonumental catalogue from the New Museum that looks at the relationship between contemporary art and Mel Gibson’s filmography. I also believe that a great deal of young artists were HEAVILY influenced by the tome Vitamin D, which indexed a lot of new practices in drawing. I believe you’ll find a number of precedents to Jessie’s practice there that could help it seem less random and more built into a developing history.
And I also recommend seeing Little Ashes if you haven’t seen it. It is a B film and not the best in production quality, but it looks at the development of Frederico Garcia Lorca’s poetry and Salvador Dali’s Surrealism against the backdrop of fascist Spain. The CAC showed it earlier this year and I left feeling strong connections to some of the explanations of surrealism described in the film.
I hope this is all of SOME HELP! I would love to talk more about it.
Have a great Sunday, Kathy. Thanks so much for stopping by the gallery and for writing.