surrealism sparks good conversations; join in!

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?


dear kathy,

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.



  1. Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions about some current trends in art.

    I did see the CAM show and too loved it for a number of reasons. One, I never thought in a hundred years that I would see a Yoko Ono (whose work I really like, by the way) at the CAM. That was a wonderful surprise to me.

    As for the show itself, I was truly impressed. This was one of those shows I see as teaching exhibits. I really loved how the show linked major Surrealist works to those by the Expressionists, the Minimalists and others. There are a now number of international exhibitions permitting this dialogue between the styles, thus refuting a static linear art history. I was thrilled to see this with the CAM's Surrealism show.

    I really don't see Jessie Bowie's work as random. I do recognize the references to pop culture like Prince and Jaws. Though I have to admit, Michael Jackson never crossed my mind when I saw the shrine to Prince. I simply saw this as a play on the rock star's name and ancient royal Egyptian sculpture. I now understand the commentary about pop cultural idols, making this piece more Warholian, or Koonsian than Surrealist. Isn't Bowie then simply repeating the commentary made by artists in the last 3-5 decades?

    I also noticed the powerful display of gender roles. Is this a surreal nightmare or paranoia or pop cultural social critique? It is difficult for me to tell here if Bowie is being critical, comical, celebratory, or afraid. I think this is the difficulty I have with current surrealist trends. I think understand the language but not completely convinced of the message....not convinced the message is new, which sometimes makes me feel old. :)

    I'm glad you mentioned her medium. Where you see drawings on blank paper as a method of story-telling, I see simply as doodles of preliminary ideas that once developed would add to the social commentary begun as early as the turn of the century.

    I still think this contemporary paranoiac surrealist trend rests somewhere in the powerful and rapid-fire influx of images by way of mass media. And I suspect the appearance of unpolished thoughts reflect our own refusal to take the time to truly engage a discussion, image, television program, online article or other information because we can change the channel or point and click something else.

    I look forward to your response. Thank you for being open to the dialogue.

    Thanks for mentioning Little Ashes. I've not seen it and now plan to do so.


  2. -part 1 of my long comment back :) -


    I am impressed by how much we are already learning. This is certainly not a simple dialogue! There is the question of Surrealism as a project unto itself, and also a possible reemergence of some of its guiding principals. What are this movement’s successes and what are its primary components? We are also probing into the exhibition at U.turn, thinking of this work against the backdrop of a conversation that is growing much larger than just surrealism, but includes Pop Art-cum-Conceptual Pop Art (like your invocation of Koons), real life culture that is being over-stimulated by the media, and a range of relatable art historical reference (that I try to expand below). I am excited about this dialogue! Thank you so much for daring to start it!

    “I still think this contemporary paranoiac surrealist trend rests somewhere in the powerful and rapid-fire influx of images by way of mass media. And I suspect the appearance of unpolished thoughts reflect our own refusal to take the time to truly engage a discussion, image, television program, online article or other information because we can change the channel or point and click something else.”

    I COULD NOT AGREE WITH YOU MORE. I hope it did not seem like I was doing so in my previous post. I think Bowie’s work is exactly the product of these circumstances, as we said in the press release:

    “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.”

    If we differ, it may be in evaluating work of this kind. I take special interest in commercials, internet pop ups, the running line of news at the bottom of TV screens during daytime television and the excess of cross-references in television sitcoms about, ostensibly, other television sitcoms. These are periphery but they are also huge in how they build our real time experiences. I am drawn to Bowie’s work for locating a space to comment or at least react to such rapidfire stimuli.

  3. -part 2-

    I am skeptical about the conversation of “new” in art. It is if that is an important line of inquiry, then it is easy to argue that everything is new because an exact set of circumstances in which one sees the work can never be replicated. Even if Bowie were to make exacting replicas of projects by Warhol or Magritte, that they were being done today in a completely different set of circumstances offers a brand new conversation to be had.

    I remember a conversation started about Minter at the CAC that raised similar questions about redundancy. Maybe it is a different conversation than this one about Bowie’s work, but I would like to try and understand that better. There are overt differences in the work of these contemporary artists, even if the content any of us might glean from their work lands within the say line of inquiry as work we have seen before, even in previous decades. To group artists as “simply repeating” risks too blunt a point as we parse for meaning, doesn’t it? As a colleague equally passionate about the relevance of art history, I would think you would be as excited as I am when I see art history brought forward into new, albeit related conversations?

    In the case of this work in particular, I’m pleased by how reminiscent it is of a wide range of art historical sources, ones that are invoked by the imagery, or the quality of mark making, or by the format of the exhibitions. That Bowie can recall surrealists, pop art, illustrators, and even much older painters of the imaginary suggests that there is more than just repeating. Bowie’s work draws together a veritable web of previously had conversations, while introducing new ones and blending them together to other affects. Here’s my (ever growing) list of people I relate to Bowie’s work (though I am explicitly refuting that it is derivative of these other artists. There’s really no way to prove that): Warhol (but actually his earlier drawings, lines on paper, erotic + imaginary imagery paired with fashion accessories, clear references to Magritte), Leonora Carrington and Hieronymus Bosch (as we mentioned in the press release), children’s book illustrators Shel Silverstein + Maurice Sendak (the timing of Jessie’s show could not have landed better than at the release of Where The Wild Things Are and the Michael Jackson film), the prints and drawings of Kiki Smith, contemporary drafts-people Marcel Dzama, Amy Cutler, Raymond Pettibon. I wasn’t anticipating this, but I also thought of Frida Kahlo when looking at her uses of beds, double images of the same character, etc. Also, although I am not very well versed in this area, I got the sniff of inspiration being drawn for the extreme imagery used in packaging and promotional materials for heavy metal music.

  4. -part 3-

    Jerry Saltz wrote a great article a year or so ago that I recently pulled and gave to Alton. Saltz was writing about the Non-specific object that has emerged in contrast to Judd’s essay on the Specific Object in the ‘60s. A sentence comes to mind when Saltz says that these new aritsts’ works are almost always simultaneously sincere and ironic. I bring it up in response to your saying:
    “Is this a surreal nightmare or paranoia or pop cultural social critique? It is difficult for me to tell here if Bowie is being critical, comical, celebratory, or afraid. I think this is the difficulty I have with current surrealist trends.”

    I think your response is entirely fair. Bowie is in fact being all of those things at different strokes, which I find more true to real life than art that purports to carry a solid, single message or perspective. I believe that while this can be challenging, difficult, annoying, frustrating (ambivalence in work can be ALL of those things for me), it points to an emergence in the way artists view themselves where they are not preachers, where they are not the source of a hemmed, neatly arranged verbal message that can be intuited from out of their pictures. Rather Bowie’s exhibition participates to some degree in the barrage of images. For me, the pleasure comes from finding psychological structures being slyly played inside the work.

    For this work, the idea reaches its fullest conclusion at the doodle. That is the decision of the artist, and many of the above mentioned as well as Aubrey Beardsley (who I am currently rekindling a love for), book illustrator Edward Gorey, and even many of the projects of Paul Cadmus (although he obviously also had a devoted life as a painter, many of the drawings were a finished investigation, a beautifully crafted object) affirm this as a destination for the creative process.

    That being said, you have every right to distrust it. In some ways, they are doodles, although the exquisite mark making (that I relate, as I said, to Kiki Smith’s drawn renderings) seems to draw them away from exactly the same thing as a doodle. Nonetheless, the doodle, the daydream, I think it is fair to say that she is citing their format readily. Then it just comes to each of us evaluating that experience for ourselves, and in the case of you and I and others who write about our experiences for a larger audience, trying to elucidate our experiences for others. I have always favored drawings that rest in that territory. I think the doodle is an important key to much of our history. But it is very possible that it won’t live up to someone else’s standards or expectations for what they want from the aesthetic experience, which is totally legitimate. Each of us have to make decisions about what to be open to and how to engage with what we open ourselves to. If the feels unresolved to you, then I encourage you to stay committed to your experience of it, and, as you feel prompted to, consider those feelings about that work and similar pieces by other artists.

    I rarely make a conclusion after I think things like “this feels unresolved” or “I’ve seen all this before” or “this is very irritating and makes me uncomfortable.” Those observations are the start of my thought processes to these alternative but ever-bit-as-real aesthetic experiences with art. I follow them as inquiries too, and can learn a lot about art, the world, and myself.

  5. Hello Matt,

    Thank you so much for taking the time to engage this conversation. These are questions I've had for years...perhaps as far back as my own 1st year as a student of art history.

    While I admit there are times when I am tempted to conclude with "I've seen this before" this is generally reserved for AbEx artists, some still life and Dutch landscape. Though I honestly admire the work he has done, I cannot count the nunber of times I simply walk by Rothko after a mere glance. Basically, I am guilty of this with the older works...pieces about which I've taught. My relatively recent movement into the contemporary art world really rests in a sincere interests in understanding and not dismissing too quickly. My reason for having this discussion with you.

    That something feels unresolved or undone is probably closer to my response here. When I speak of something "new" in art, what I mean is that I require artists to add to the artistic discourse; not repeat what has already been said with simply new or different images or even medium choices.

    What I enjoyed most about the Surrealism show at the CAM was the exhibition of works by artists influenced by Surrealism and Dada. Exhibiting works from various different periods and of different styles illustrate clearly a visual conversation between artists and each piece, each artist adds something new to the discussion.

    Thanks to you, I now understand the doodle as intentional and not simply unfinished or random. Though I'm not sure even that choice is "new." The doodle, children's art, folk and outsider art are all already part of the discussion of surrealism and AbEx. So this still leaves me wondering if Bowie is still working through this...whatever it is she is really trying to say or express.

    Today, I really expect artists to say something more than, "you know, we have an unfortunate tendency to put celebrities high on a pedestal, like gods" I really don't see her "Purple Rain" saying much more than that. What else can she say about this that has not already been said? What "new" can she bring into the discussion?

  6. dear kathy,

    i think, together, we've done a marvelous job of defining a lot of this. i hope you feel like you have a handle on what is at work in Bowie's work, as well as other artists like her working now (i was reminded of her project as an artist when I visited Aaron Morse's exhibition at Country Club, for example).

    what comes next is evaluating the artists themselves. which, if contextualizing them is subjective already, valuing them is even more so. i think we've mapped some main points in Bowie's work: the use of juxtaposed imagery that recalls surrealism, the relationship to a manic contemporary pop culture of overwhelming imagery, and the physical form of her work as line drawings on paper and very intentionally crude or simple wall paintings.

    whether or not these areas of research are interesting or successful will fall on each viewer. i'm very satisfied that, whether or not a visitor ultimately likes, enjoys or applauds the exhibition, there seems to be plenty of points worth discussing. as such, it is functioning as a participant in contemporary discourse.

    i hope that you'll continue to be a sensitive and thoughtful visitor to the exhibitions at Brighton's different galleries. THANK YOU for stretching out conversations around the art!

  7. Thank you Matt.

    I look forward to many future visits to Brighton. Thanks for be the one to introduce me to the galleries, and thank you for bringing Bowie into u turn. There are many artists like her who continue to challenge me...force me to rethink some of my ideas and re-engage theirs.


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