In his 1951 Arts Club of Chicago talk, Jean Dubuffet decried Western humanist culture, advocating for “primitive” values of “instinct, passion, mood, violence, madness.” That same year Dubuffet painted the raw, densely textured portrait of a hat-donning gentleman, an uncanny prefiguration of Leon Golub’s heads, both currently on view in the Museum of Contemporary Art’s “Surrealism: The Conjured Life.”
The original 1920s-30s “Surrealist” circle preceded Dubuffet and Golub, and therein lies curator Lynne Warren’s premise: after the narrowly defined group disbanded during WWII, artists continued with great gusto to channel the subconscious to create imaginative, symbolic figurative work, which resonated with independent-minded Chicago artists and collectors. Notably MCA founders Joseph and Jory Shapiro, the Bergmans and the Manilows amassed highly regarded collections of such work. “Surrealism” exhibition-goers have a unique opportunity to discover artists like Enrico Baj, who are less-well-known in the United States but were vetted by Chicago’s top Surrealist collectors.
A kaleidoscope of dream-like paintings and wily sculptures, “Surrealism: The Conjured Life” contains jewels by a wide range of artists including Lee Bontecou, Jaume Plensa and H. C. Westermann; Gertrude Abercrombie and June Leaf; self-taught Forrest Bess, Martin Ramírez and Hector Dreygo (collected and fetishized by rationality-averse Surrealists); and Chicago’s Hairy Who and Monster Roster, who are currently the subject of much renewed art world interest. The show spirals out from “classical” Surrealists Max Ernst, René Magritte and Paul Delvaux, hanging centrally on a curving purple section, to a roughly chronological survey of other manifestations on the exterior. New conversations abound: Claude Cahun’s self-staged, gender-performing photographs are paired with Cindy Sherman’s; Victor Brauner’s bird painting hangs nearby suspended sculptures by Bontecou and Gabriel Orozco; and fiber pieces by Nick Cave, Anne Wilson and Claire Zeisler gain new meaning in the surrealist context.
“The Conjured Life” is a cornucopia of Chicago history as much as Surrealist strategies in twentieth-century art, and it opens doors for further research into the independently minded artists cultivated by the Second City. (Anastasia Tinari Karpova)
Through June 5 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 East Chicago.
Elliot J. Reichert is a Chicago-based curator, critic, and editor. He is a currently a Hatch Projects Curatorial Resident at the Chicago Artist Coalition and Art Editor of Newcity. Formerly, he was Assistant Curator at the Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University. His writing has been published in The Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of Visual Culture, and Newcity.