John Morse‘s life took a surreal turn recently when Keep Atlanta Beautiful’s complaint against his roadside haiku signs made the news from the London Guardian to The New Yorker, and on to Canada and South Africa in short order.
It seemed a confirmation of the hypothesis behind The Surrealist Next Door, Morse’s first curatorial effort at Wm Turner gallery: namely, that ordinary life is now so surreal that depictions of life as it is are themselves already surrealist artworks.
The Kevlar-clad bike couriers photographed by Peter Hamblin are probably the most direct illustration of Morse’s thesis, though a close runner-up might be Michaele McCarthy’s photo of dueling red Wall Street Journal and blue New York Times newspaper boxes, their adjacent symbolic competition interrupted by a “Read the Koran” graffito chalked on the NYT box.
Morse’s preoccupations seem based on the belief that 9-11 altered American experience fundamentally. Branda Mangum’s quilt that is also, vaguely, an American flag rhymes in this respect with Brice Hammack’s World Trade Towers collage in which the towers are pillars of sky and cloud set at an angle to the sky behind them. For Morse, the trauma of September 11, 2001, unsettled our collective perception in the same way that the First World War did for the Surrealists, as it had for the Dadaists who preceded them.
Perhaps the present’s improbable events actually do intersect with our unconscious intuitions in ways not dissimilar from the original generation of Surrealists—who maintained that they were illustrating the insights of Sigmund Freud, including his thoughts on jokes and the unconscious.
But despite the popular perception of the original Surrealists’ intent, for them humorous incongruity wasn’t sufficient to render something surreal. A certain degree of unsettling weirdness (or “the uncanny,” what Freud called unheimlich) was required in order to engage unconscious process and set surreality in motion.
The Surrealists also aimed to overturn the established order by alternating between the uncanny and canny parody, and this impulse is reflected in some works in Morse’s show but not all of them. (However, today’s “surrealist next door” may operate by different definitions of the concept than the movement of the 1930s. This needs clarification.)
Morse’s self-declared “survey of contemporary surrealist art” is a mixed bag throughout, containing everything from a thoroughly unheimlich video by the globally famous Eve Sussman to a digital collage by emerging artist and gallery intern Claire Elise Tippins. The remaining works by (mostly) New York and Atlanta artists range from daringly conceptual to one-liner witty.
One of the most interesting works in the show, Mark Gordon’s exhibition soundtrack The Surrealist Next Score may be the best bridge between Morse’s idea of the surreality of the ordinary and the strategies of historical Surrealist art.
The most blatant reference to the original strategies is probably Hartmut Paul’s En Plein Water, which reprises Magritte’s perfect match of a canvas on an easel with the landscape behind it in La Condition Humaine. Paul’s painting substitutes a tossing ocean, adding kinetic humor to Magritte’s placidly stable but profoundly disturbing vision of the ideal meeting of world and art.
One might find traditional surrealist linkages of sex and death mirrored in Elyse Defoor’s Pandora, an image of a black swimsuit crafted from spent ammunition cartridges. Customary surrealist mockery of religious objects is found here in R. Land’s alien creature overlaid on a found painting of Jesus, and in Ford Rogers’ The Shorts of Turin, a pair of boxer shorts on which the anatomical part left unseen in the Shroud of Turin‘s imprinted figure appears in all its sacrilegious glory.
Cameron Snow’s small portraits of costumed children are more goth-lowbrow than surrealist, but Snow’s uncanny devotion to psychoanalytically charged transgression curiously confirms Morse’s hypothesis of an indefinable link between past and present surrealities. These kids look scary, and not because of their pirate or witch outfits. Girl #5 (princess) sports a black eye and a defiant sneer that suggests she gave as good as she got.
The most authentic expression of historical Surrealist practice, however, is to be found in a thematic juxtaposition that includes John Morse’s own 2008 maquette of a chair balanced atop a sawn-off tree stump. Morse’s work strikes resonance with Carlos Solis’s 2010 painting of a similar chair-and-stump arrangement, above which a bird is delivering an egg to a waiting nest as a small child watches from the ground.
Seeing this painting, Morse told Solis, “I made a sculpture of this painting before you painted it.” It is a moment that could have come from André Breton’s Nadja or from Louis Aragon’s eyewitness reports of uncanny coincidences. It utterly transforms two works that otherwise would be simply additional iterations of familiar surrealist tropes.