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Wylie: Perspectives on Surrealism

Elizabeth Zvonar, Channelling, 2009, digital lightjet print of a handcut collage, 90.8 x 75.2 cm - Vancouver Art Gallery Collection
Elizabeth Zvonar, Channelling, 2009, digital lightjet print of a handcut collage, 90.8 x 75.2 cm
— image credit: Vancouver Art Gallery Collection

Years ago, in the early days of this millennium, an artist friend posed the question to me of which art movement of the 20th century did I think would be seen as having been the most influential.

I proposed Cubism (developed by Pablo Picasso and George Braque in Paris in 1908). Cubist paintings, collage and sculpture prompted other artists to consider including multiple points of view within a single work (farewell to mathematical perspective) and also introduced the notion of duration to visual art. Its faceted, geometric vocabulary spread like wildfire throughout the western world.

My friend disagreed, however, and said that it was Surrealism that had truly allowed artists to free their minds, with the notion of plumbing one’s creative unconscious, tapping into archetypes—those symbols of the collective unconscious—and the move to working automatically, that is, with no preconceived notion of what one’s composition was going to represent or look like.

The artists of the Surrealist movement (which occurred in several European centres, beginning in the 1920s) also stepped boldly into abstraction in some cases, an area from which the Cubists had hung back.

I saw his point, and it seems others would agree with him—witness the touring exhibition from the Vancouver Art Gallery, Unreal, that features 39 works of art from their permanent collection that all embody or stem from Surrealist thought.

Circulated through a program called Across the Province (launched in 2006) this show opened earlier this month at the Kelowna Art Gallery.

To visit Unreal is to experience first-hand the ongoing heritage and lineage of Surrealism. The show is divided into themes: The Unconscious, The Haunted, The Absurd, and the Dis-Assembled. As one might surmise, the mood and tone of the works varies greatly from theme to theme.

All the pieces in the show are strange and unusual takes on reality, although some are actually painstakingly naturalistic. Several of the artists included are well-known international figures who have never before had work exhibited in Kelowna. Two examples of these are the late Irish-born Francis Bacon, and the contemporary American photo-based artist, Cindy Sherman.

Works range in date from the mid 1940s (with watercolours by Jock Macdonald and J-P Riopelle, executed in the automatic method), through the 1980s, with a terrific collage work by the late Robert Rauschenberg, for example, to works on paper from 2003 by the New-York-based Marcel Dzama (formerly based in Winnipeg and a member of the former collective there called the Royal Art Lodge, who met every Friday evening to draw together).

While fascinating, the vast majority of the pieces in Unreal are puzzling and enigmatic—they do not yield up a quick and straightforward reading to the viewer, and some may remain intelligible only to their creators, as their imagery is so personally fanciful, perhaps drawn from the artists’ own dreams.

Unreal is organized and circulated by the Vancouver Art Gallery with the generous support of the Killy Foundation. It was curated by Daina Augaitis, chief curator/associate director of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Unreal is on at the Kelowna Art Gallery, 1315 Water St., until March 9.

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