Jan Harrison, a highly respected artist in the region, recently won NYFA’s first Recharge Foundation Fellowship for New Surrealist Art, a $5,000 award for painters who are working in the “New Surrealist” style.
Surrealism emerged in 1924 with the publishing of Andre Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto and grew into a significant cultural movement—a profound reaction to the unmitigated nightmare that was World War I—which, besides visual art, encompassed poetry, film, and political theory. The Surrealists were influenced by the writings of Freud and blamed the ills afflicting society on an over-reliance on rational mind. Instead, they embraced the truths revealed by dreams, chance, and the unconscious. Many of the original Surrealists “didn’t really label themselves that way,” according to Susan Abneth, Associate Professor of Art History at Bard College, who was one of three jurors on the Recharge Foundation Fellowship panel.
It is hard to say whether what we're seeing now is a "new movement," per se, or simply a picking-up-where-we-left-off. What Surrealism lacked in cohesion as an established movement, it made up for in subtle staying power, weaving in and out of history. Many of its methods were incorporated into Abstract Expressionism, and it has a way of resurfacing in eras of widespread psychic stress, like the one we're in now.
Professor Abneth notes that the emergent wave of “New Surrealism” is part of a trend that also includes exhibitions of historic women Surrealists such as Leonara Carrington, Remedios Varo, Dorothea Tanning, and Kay Sage. Why now? Abneth points to the feelings of distortion and displacement many of us experience in a world increasingly devoid of sense.
While Harrison may be one of the only self-proclaimed New Surrealists, there are scores of other notable artists in our region that are working with a Surrealist mindset and toolkit. Beginning with Harrison, here is a look at the Hudson Valley artists whose works show marked Surrealist influences.
Jan Harrison’s mature work began with a powerful dream she had in 1979. In it, she came upon a very beautiful bird, which she wished to address but didn’t know how. Ultimately, the dream revealed the way. Today, Harrison makes use of techniques pioneered by the original Surrealists such as automatism, employing intuitive associations to guide her. Working on the floor of her studio mostly using pastel, she circles around the evolving piece. “Balance” shows a monkey staring directly at the viewer, two hands reach towards it, perhaps the artist’s—Harrison uses her hands to “caress” her work into new discoveries. Figures show-up and maybe disappear over time including, occasionally, Jung’s Shadow.
Beacon-based Joseph Ayers asserts,“Surrealism is alive and well in the Hudson Valley.” His painting Remembering the Dead places Michaelangelo’s Pieta within an oversized skull creating an experience where perception of the iconic sculpture’s figures moves in and out of focus. Something similar happens when trying to concentrate on the skull alone. Ultimately Ayers is “thinking about and, to some degree, illustrating a death of perceptions, while evoking a religious and empathic consciousness.”
Sascha Mallon was born in the city of Vienna, once the home of Sigmund Freud. Ironically, she has never really thought of herself as a Surrealist though her art emerges from a characteristically Surrealist process: an intuitive “easy” progression of “drawing in ceramic,” where one thing leads to another. Shown here is a detail of one of Mallon’s wall-spanning narrative works entitled A Fragile Thread. Ceramic lace imprinted from the real thing from Mallon’s native Austria adorns the central figure’s support and is seen elsewhere in the piece. Pierced by openings from which the surrounding moths have emerged–to become food for birds–the figure offers the viewer one representative from the order of Lepidoptera for consideration.
Elisa Lendvay, who recently moved to the Hudson Valley with her family from New York City, won’t label herself as a Surrealist but admits to having enjoyed Breton’s manifesto. Her sculpture engages her in “being true to the weirdness, the unknown, the uncanny,” and grows out of the process of its creation. Working mostly in an abstract vein, Lendvay’s new garden has brought an element of representation into her art which is manifested in “Green Orbits (Snake Plant).”
Newburgh’s own Daniel Giordano has a studio in his family’s coat factory which has a smoke stack adorned in di Chirico fashion with the company’s name: Vicki, after his aunt. In his twenties, sculptor Giordano seems to be channeling the zeitgeist of the original Surrealist cabal, though labels, fittingly, are the furthest thing from his mind. One of his favorite materials is a paste of cattails mixed with ground urinal cake blended with epoxy which holds things together in this “deep-fried” homage to his brother entitled My Scorpio.