In Wonderland at LACMA is the first exhibition dedicated to Surrealism as practiced by women artists. Featuring 47 artists from the U.S. and Mexico, the curators examine the relationship between Surrealism and the emergence of gender politics. Previous Surrealist surveys excluded or minimized the role of female artists. While I acknowledge the monumental significance of this show, it irks me that in the year 2012, female artists are still categorized by gender. This categorization marginalizes the women artists, as if their work could not hang tough with the big boys like Dali, Tanguy and Ernst.
Despite my initial misgivings, the exhibit is smartly curated, contextualizing the work within a broader discourse of history, politics, geography, mythology and social issues. I was unfamiliar with at least half of the artists. The curators also take a liberal view of Surrealism, including later work inspired by Surrealism or work that incorporated Surrealist aesthetics.
Painting proves to be the exhibition’s only weak link; much of it didn’t stand the test of time. However the photography, sculpture and film more than make up for that. Inspired by Maya Deren’s film Witches Cradle (which is also on display), large sections of crisscrossed rope serve as a unifying design element used to separate the galleries, creating visual tension. As in the film, the ropes prevent escape—in this case creating a barrier that obstructs vision and passage from one gallery to the other.
One of the primary goals of Surrealism was to express the unconscious. Artists employed many techniques to achieve this goal such as using games of chance and innovative technical processes. Photographers used experimental techniques like solarization and photograms. Mexican artist Rosa Rolanda who studied with Man Ray created unique detailed photograms in the 1920’s. These little-known/shown gems overshadow those of her teacher in both skill and complexity.
The Surrealists also used the body as a metaphor for expressing unconscious desire and fantasy. The female body represented the object of male desire; so female artists used their bodies as a site of resistance to the male gaze. Ruth Bernard’s black and white photograph In the Box—Horizontal (1962) illustrates this reversal of the gaze (although she made the work a couple of decades after the Surrealist period). The image depicts a reclining female nude tapped in a small wooden box, metaphorically referencing the confines of gender.
Artists also used the fragmented body, specifically the breast as subject/object to both celebrate and challenge traditional representations of the woman in art. On display is the book entitled Please Touch produced by Enrico Donati and Marcel Duchamp for the 1947 European Surrealist Exposition. Donati purchased 999 pre-fabricated foam “falsies” which he and Duchamp hand-painted to more naturally resemble female anatomy. The breast became the cover of the catalog. Donati recalled a conversation between himself and Duchamp: ’I remarked that I had never thought I would get tired of handling so many breasts, and Marcel said, ‘Maybe that’s the whole idea’. Always the mischievous prankster, Duchamp’s idea that all viewers would have to fondle the breast in order to access the book forced viewers to confront their own ideas about fetish and desire. Of the 24 exhibited artists, six were women including Dorothy Tanning, Maria Martins (whose breast was the inspiration for the cover), Elizabeth van Damme, Jacqueline Lamba, Kay Sage and Toyen (Marie Čermínová).
Two other exhibited artists also produced unsettling “breast” works that confront the viewer. Louise Bourgeois, whom I’ve never considered a surrealist, does embrace surrealist aesthetics in her pigmented urethane rubber sculpture Fillette (Sweeter Version) 1968-99. Suspended from the ceiling, the breast sculpture resembles a Francis Bacon slab of meat. On display, the visceral object is simultaneously alluring and grotesque. If this is the sweeter version, I’m not sure I want to see the not-so-sweet version.
The most radical and subversive work is a 1930 diptych black and white untitled photograph by Lee Miller featuring a severed breast served on a dinner plate. Best-known as Vogue’s war correspondent photographer during WWII, Miller is not categorized as a surrealist, but her photographs employ some surrealist compositional techniques. In an impulsive moment, Miller (who had been visiting her friend in the hospital following a radical mastectomy) hid her friend’s breast in a napkin and sneaked it out of the hospital. She photographed it and hid the photo for years. This transgressive act defiantly ruptures the male gaze, by literally serving the breast on a plate for consumption. The image also functions as a site of loss, both personally for her friend and collectively for all women who suffer from breast cancer.
The show’s title In Wonderland refers to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. The book inspired many female surrealists, who either identified with the character of Alice or the book’s many themes such as reality vs. fantasy, search for identity, and the pursuit of the revelatory. In the postscript/Feminist Revolution section of the exhibition a 1969 black and white photograph caught my eye. A young Yayoi Kusama is posed with nude, polka-dot-covered boys in front of the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park, New York City. The photograph shows the progression of ideals put forth by the female surrealists and carried forward in the feminist movement. Yet, it’s not just about power; it is about the power of the imagination, which fueled the female surrealists both past and present.
“My work is about leaving the door open to the imagination.” Dorothea Tanning in an Art News interview (March 1988).
In Wonderland: Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Through May 6, 2012
Multi-media artist Colette Copeland recently relocated to Dallas from Philadelphia. She writes for Afterimage—Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism and Ceramics: Art and Perception Magazine. Her work can be found at www.colettecopeland.com.
also by Colette Copeland
- "A Tribute to Mike Kelley" at MOCA - March 22nd, 2012
- CAA Part II: Design, Food, Weegee and Naked Hollywood - March 9th, 2012
- CAA Part I: Conference Highlights - March 3rd, 2012