It was what is colloquially referred to as “a surreal experience.”
Princeton-based artist Frances Heinrich had gone to see “Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938” at the Museum of Modern Art. It was her second time to see the exhibition on the breakthrough surrealist years of painter Rene Magritte who created some of the 20th century’s most striking images. Afterward Heinrich was headed to her favorite Thai restaurant when she hit the pavement. “I didn’t even trip,” she recalls, a cast on her arm to reset the bone. But a broken wrist didn’t stop her from setting up “The False Mirror — Surrealism Forward and Back,” on view at Artworks in Trenton from Saturday, January 11, through Saturday, February 22.
Almost a hundred years have passed since classical surrealist works were first shown, and their irrational “snapshots” of the impossible were surely quite shocking back then, Heinrich says in her curator’s statement. “Today, however, we appear increasingly attracted to similar oddities: computer-altered talking babies, life-sized combative tacos, and flying cars probably now seem both plausible and trendy.”
Early and mid-20th-century works by de Chirico, Magritte, Ernst, and Dali forever loosened the look and logic of thought and vision, Heinrich continues, and they forever twisted and morphed all that we now view and accept as possible.
At the Artworks show, works in drawing, painting, sculpture, video, and installation by Tom Bendtsen (of Philadelphia), John Goodyear (Lambertville), Benjamin S. Jones (Beacon, New York), Alan Kesselhaut (Princeton), Paul Leibow (Leonia, NJ), Artworks director Lynn and Jim Lemyre (Mount Holly), Adam Niklewicz (Connecticut), Sarah Petruziello (South Orange), Frank Rivera (Hightstown), Anita Thacher (New York City), and Andrew Wilkinson (Trenton) demonstrate “the ideas, sensibilities, and visual freedoms originally granted by historical surrealists and Dadaists,” says Heinrich, who will present a talk during the January 11 opening and link historical works of surrealism to the “special effects” in contemporary film, television, advertising, and fashion.
“I notice in everything that surrounds us media-wise, there are extraordinary influences from the historic surrealist period of the 1920s and 1930s,” says the curator, citing commercials that have used surrealist ideas to attract attention: a taco biting back or a flying car. “Today people accept them and don’t think of them in the way when first shown in art world.”
Everything is derivative in some way, adds Heinrich. Magritte was influenced by film director Louis Feuillade, who made crime serials using special effects during the silent era. “Magritte was a fan. Some scenes were startling, and he made paintings inspired by these. He also did fashion spreads for a furrier. Today’s commercial art borrows from Ernst, Dali, and Magritte.”
As a culture we have internalized the isms of art history, says Heinrich. “We do this unconsciously. That’s the way culture develops, and we learn to see things.”
Magritte felt that people didn’t see objects; they took appearances for granted, and he wanted to put them together in a way to see them anew: a glass of water balanced on top of umbrella makes you look at those objects differently. “This idea was also embraced by Christo,” says Heinrich. “He wrapped things because we’re acclimated to not seeing things, not seeing our surroundings, until they are wrapped and become more prominent and important. We stop and take them in with more intention. We are so used to seeing things we don’t really see; we just assume.”
To give historical context to the “forward/back” idea, contemporary works are grouped near prints by surrealist masters. For example, Magritte’s “Empire Of Light” (1950), a dark, nocturnal street scene set against an incongruous pastel blue, light-drenched sky spotted with fluffy cumulus clouds, hangs near works that deal with the subjectivity of time and light.
Benjamin Jones’ “Sunshine Policy” is, in the artist’s words, a “mash-up of architectural, animal, and cultural imagery. As a visualization of an impossible scenario it evokes the sensibilities of surrealism.” A four-legged outsized beast has landed atop a building in this sculptural work, with golden bolts emerging from the impact. “It was created in a time of great flux in my life,” says Jones. “I began to notice a pattern of growth and decay in my surroundings that mirrored the sense of endings and beginnings in my personal life. The title comes from a sense of necessary optimism when faced with a bleak scenario.”
Heinrich has paired two works by Ernst with Jones’ sculpture: “The Fireside Angel” and “Celebs,” depicting grotesque sinister figures. “Both incorporate animal imagery in fantastical alternate realities,” Heinrich says.
She has also paired works of Ernst with Frank Rivera’s Escher-like painting organized in a series of small panels. The images include gesturing hands, mechanical birds, puppets, chairs, and appliances performing in ways that are contrary to the laws of nature. “The human eye is fascinated … by making connections between polar opposites,” Rivera writes. Ernst’s “The Hat Makes the Man” — a collage of hats cut from catalogs — is juxtaposed with Rivera’s “Reliable Plumage,” which shows different views of a man’s headdress.
John Goodyear, who identifies as neither avant-garde nor surrealist — two movements that happened nearly a century ago — might best be described as a conceptualist. “The artist looks for an idea for a work rather than looking for technical expertise or finish,” he says. “Chance operation in the work moves away from beauty. Mistakes in the work were viewed as idea out of context and often led to important discoveries.” Major influences for Goodyear were Marcel Duchamp and John Cage and, in later years, Leon Golub.
His “Chicken and Egg” is a chicken made of eggshells and an egg made of chicken feathers. Heinrich has paired it with Magritte’s “The Mathematical Mind,” in which the mother has the head of a baby and the baby had the head of a mother.
Heinrich’s own “Worldly Fates” installation evokes Miss Havisham (the reclusive aged bride from Charles Dickens’ 1861 novel “Great Expectations”). It incorporates juxtaposed incongruous imagery. A lit globe with human features and an antique hand-held table mirror serve as heads for an elaborately dressed bridal figure. Another bride, spread on the floor, has a deflated balloon for a head and is held captive by a ball and chain. “The work explores self-awareness, approval-seeking, conforming, accommodation, rejection, abandonment, futility, failure, and deflation,” says Heinrich, who went to Douglass College on a full scholarship during the Fluxus movement, a late 1950s and 1960s international movement that was influenced by Rutgers University artists who were expanding the traditional boundries of art. The Rutherford native had been raised by Republican parents who led a conventional lifestyle — her father was a quality control inspector for the government and her mother a homemaker. Heinrich’s eyes were opened at Rutgers by Roy Lichtenstein, George Segal, Robert Watts, and Geoffrey Hendricks. At Columbia, where she earned a master’s in art history, she says she didn’t find people as interesting as her mentors at Rutgers.
Her installation was subconsciously influenced by sketches Dali made for furniture that was never produced in his lifetime, though later produced by BD Barcelona Design in the 1990s. The Leda chair has feet in high-heeled shoes at the bottom of its legs. “They only existed as sketches, and he died without seeing them produced,” she says. “The idea of combining incongruous images and putting them together in a way we don’t expect, making leaps of imagination, is all surreal. Ernst cut up catalogs and put together objects that didn’t go together. He called Magritte’s work painted collage.”
Heinrich has been interested in surrealism “for a long time.” “There’s so much surrealism in movies: ‘Avatar’ and ‘Blade Runner,’ with its flying cars, is so surrealist, and we take it for granted today.” Her goal is to heighten awareness of the everyday uses in the media to the roots in art history. “Life-size chickens playing badminton and other startling combinations capture attention — it’s a good hook for selling. People are now sending Christmas videos influenced by surrealism, underwater singing or children walking upside down on the ceiling. Do they know where it comes from? Probably not.”
The False Mirror — Surrealism Forward And Back, Artworks Gallery, 19 Everett Alley, Trenton. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., January 11 through February 22. Opening — with curator Frances Heinrich presenting a PowerPoint talk connecting famous historical art works to the current “special effects” in film, TV, advertising and fashion — Saturday, January 11, 6 to 8 p.m.
Also opening, Saturday, January 11, “Transitions — A solo exhibition by Colleen Gahrmann,” a former North Brunswick High School teacher who uses two and three dimensional work that explores memories of culture, place, and the changes within self. www.artworkstrenton.org or 609-394-9436.