At the recent open studios, a woman asked me if I was influenced by the Surrealists, Magritte in particular. I suppose I can see why she asked me that, but the fact is that I’ve always rather hated the Surrealists, especially Dali. Surrealism seems like poster art for adolescents, to be repudiated in adulthood. If I had to pick, I guess I would choose Magritte – even though his paintings are kind of one-liners, some- of them do have a workmanlike yet poetic gravitas. But no – I pretty much never think about the Surrealists in terms of conscious influence (although it would be appropriately ironic if I were being unconsciously influenced). Despite the goals of the Surrealists to plumb the depths of their subconsciousness, it does seem pretty apparent that, as Peter Schjeldahl wrote in his essay Sexy Surrealism, “in Surrealist dream pictures, the discovery process ends before brush touches canvas. The rest is whistle-while-you-work, academic execution.” And at any rate, merely plumbing ones unconscious doesn't mean particularly interesting work will ensue. Isn't it all fairly predictable, anyway? Sex and all its sweaty permutations; Mom and Dad; fear of the dark; the scurrying of the ego in the face of annihilation. Surely the role of an artist is not only to dive into the wreck, but then to distill this murky brew. To be both a spelunker and a rather stern editor. Otherwise, isn't it just kind of masturbatory?
I've been wondering: if an image does not thoroughly conform to accepted norms of realistic depiction, is it automatically surreal? I looked up ‘surreal’ in some online dictionaries, and it turns out the word basically means ‘dreamlike,’ as in “marked by the intense irrationality of a dream; unbelievable; fantastic” or “characterized by fantastic imagery and incongruous juxtapositions.” I’ve just never been that into dreams per se, my own or anyone else’s, and especially not as predicators of spiritual truths. I don’t remember mine, and I’ve never been party to the retelling of someone else’s dream without smothering a yawn. At any rate, there are tons of paintings (most of them?) out there that are not totally realistic (whatever that means), that contain incongruous elements or are just plain bizarre, and by no stretch are they all by actual Surrealists. Take Holbein’s painting, The Ambassadors (1533), just for one. Hello, strange distorted skull shape, just hanging out there, front and center, all casual-like? Yeah, yeah, anamorphic distortion, memento mori and all that, I get it, but, um hello? Really fucking weird!! I guess my plaint is this: can’t a work of art be a bit surreal without being accused of . . . Surrealism?
It’s certainly not that I don’t like incongruous juxtapositions, because clearly I do. In fact, my paintings owe a certain debt to Surrealism for the idea of the Exquisite Corpse. This was a parlor game played by the Surrealists, wherein a piece of paper is folded into thirds, and one person draws the head, another the torso, and a third the legs, all without seeing the others’ work, so the finished figure is a strangely trifurcated composite. I build my figures somewhat similarly, in horizontal layers – the feet painted one way, the legs another, and the torso yet another, or indeed, as something else entirely. I don’t know why I don’t want/can’t seem to paint a figure all one way . . . but I can’t, for some important, inchoate reason. The notion of people – and paintings – as kinds of composites is integral to my thinking and working process. In another Schjeldahl essay about Joan Mitchell, he wrote about what she learned from Arshile Gorky, and they are lessons I aspire to for my own work:
Mitchell absorbed Gorky’s earlier modulation of Picasso and Surrealism into a formal language of counterposed line and color and thick and thin textures. Gorky understood that emotional eloquence is an effect not of theatrical gestures but of varied contrasts and rhythms, in which surprising disjunctions join in a harmonious whole.
I hope my own disjunctions, both painterly, and personal, can eventually attain the same unity.