Surreal Things

JILL MULLEADY’S PAINTING SOLUS LOCUS (2018) is a dream of a bivalve Venus: an oyster on the pearlescent half-shell spreads across the picture, lusciously plump, its striated folds rendered as tongues and lips. The shell dwarfs the hand reaching in from the upper left, gloved in slick black, wrist cocked as if ready to play the oyster like a harp. Of course, in many dreams, you don’t get the things you want. Anxious dreams are a series of near misses, like shucking an oyster only to find dry meat. You usually don’t get the things you want in waking life, either—or at least getting them isn’t often as satisfying as you’d hoped. A painting like Mulleady’s offers a certain consummation of the dream; but also emphasizes this absence, being, after all, only a picture, no matter how much the genre of still life implies possession. What you really have is art. The image is poised on the moment of waking, between having and not having, the unconscious and the conscious, the dream and the world.

The ubiquity of Surrealist tropes a century after the publication of André Breton’s Surrealist manifesto speaks to the catchiness of the brand. Indeed, the pervasiveness of Surrealist style in contemporary art and culture owes much to the success of advertising. Breton built a movement on Freud’s theory of the unconscious; so did his contemporary Edward Bernays, the famous ad man and propagandist who pioneered the trade of appealing to the “masses.” One could delve into the unconscious mind to draw out the latent richness of dreams (perhaps even to face some of the repressed desires that erupted during World War I)—or, one could mine these same desires to sell people products they don’t need and don’t want. The results often look the same: it doesn’t take much rubbing to smudge the lines between Surrealism’s original socialist invective, the diffusion of the surrealistic as one style among many, and the rise of consumer society as we know it today, with the insane phrase GRUBHUB IS SEAMLESS, SEAMLESS IS GRUBHUB feverishly ubiquitous in New York City subway cars. When the Surrealists decamped from Paris at the outbreak of World War II, many to New York, Salvador Dalí threw himself into advertising. This was one reason his fellow Surrealists disavowed him, even as he rode the Surrealist lobster well into the go-go 1960s. Dalí fashioned his own legacy and brand, while also endorsing, among other things, chocolate (1969) and antacid (1974): indulgence and its cure.

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Jill Mulleady: Psychic Landscape, 2019, oil on canvas,
35½ inches square.

In this context of relentless, small-s surrealism, it can be difficult to find a work of contemporary art that isn’t in some way surreal, that doesn’t incorporate at least some shade of the phantasmic style, jarring montage, and slippery associations characteristic of the original, capital-S movement. At their schlockiest, surrealistic tropes today make for mildly titillating escapism, little more than a “witchy” or “trippy” flavor. Yet certain contemporary art comes close to the original Surrealist goal of integrating waking life and dreams as they existed within consumer society—in Breton’s formulation, the real and the over-real—into a holistic, full-spectrum picture of the world. It is the difference between the frilly, rainbow-hued drift of cartoon psychedelia and the heightened edges of an acid trip in the flat light of a supermarket. In the latter mode, the surreal inclinations are studied and cold: Mulleady’s Psychic Landscape (2019), a painting of the artist’s legs in the bath, echoes Frida Kahlo’s What the Water Gave Me (1938), but given the times we live in, it also evokes George W. Bush’s witless variation on the theme: one of the first two paintings in his oeuvre, leaked in 2013, shows the former president’s toes in the tub. Surrealism is in the water. Unlike Kahlo’s hallucinatory pageant, Mulleady’s is a tepid, placid vision, more like Bush’s—a bath that is, resolutely, only that.

The historic figuration of Surrealism, with its particular political valence bracketed by two world wars and regimented by modernity, is no longer catalytic in an era when ads have more imagination than our politics and the average fast-food commercial is more psychedelic than most contemporary art. The crummy remains of shopping sprees, what Jack Bankowsky, writing about Jason Rhoades in Artforum in 2007, called “mercantile Surrealism,” reflect the ambient, endogenous quality of today’s historical traumas, mostly characterized by simmering proxy conflicts and creeping environmental chaos. For painters like Mulleady and others working in this vein, including Orion Martin and Lauren Satlowski, the application of surrealistic principles reflects a lack of alternatives to a world already made surreal, and to surrealism itself as an art-historical propellant—portraying the demiurge of consumer society not as evil, but as inescapable. Call this latter-day, hard-edged school TINA Surrealism, after the neoliberal cri du capital: There Is No Alternative. In the surreal vestiges of the historical avant-garde, art’s strangeness marks not the possibility of other, better worlds, but the finitude of this one, in which the consummation of unconscious desire has a distinctly matter-of-fact, ambivalent aftertaste. Dreams of giant oysters precede dreams of dirty dishes.

Orion Martin: Bakers Steak, 2015, oil on canvas, 51½ by 35½ inches.

THE WORD “CONSUMERISM” emerged in 1922 (the year Breton abandoned Dadaism for Surrealism), and by the 1960s had evolved to its present, sociological sense of a consumption-driven way of life. So, too, were the Surrealists drawn to consumption, in the sense of desires to be consummated—objects used up and discarded, delicacies ingested, desire quenched with possession. But in today’s world of mass production, we don’t need artists to invent weird comparisons, since surreal pairings suggest themselves: instead of Dalí’s cheesy combo of a lobster and a telephone, we’re more likely to encounter the mundane coincidence of a toy lobster and a box of baking soda on a toilet tank—a more metonymic slippage from dream logic into mass culture. In Dalí’s landscape of trimmed beef, the ruby-red cuts and rounds of ox-tail arrayed in the desert like bluffs, the dreamlike setting maintains the underlying hunger and desire endemic to Surrealism. The Spaniard’s baroque recipes published as a Surrealist cookbook are technically edible, although Dalí’s bombastic surf-and-turf usually confounds the bodily appetite.

The recurrence of seafood, eggs, and other fleshy foods in the work of contemporary painters is more evidence of continuity with historical Surrealism. This is food of the unconscious. In Mulleady’s Still Life on Ice (2018), bowls of whelks sit to the left, fish steaks to the right, beside piles of whole fish on ice in the unpackaged disarray of a market. Orion Martin also paints a seafood spread in Asleep in a Fish Can (2018), a photorealist base layer of iced lobsters, slightly out of focus; and, seeming to float on top, a few egg- or fruitlike orange orbs and a few spikes of solid color. These paintings, banal on one face, also proffer some distant scent of the undifferentiated world that language attempts to order, as if the objects they depict are not simply fish and snails but symbols plucked from Freud’s “oceanic feeling.” Their selection and reification make them ripe for analysis.

Elsewhere, instead of a sensual feast, Mulleady paints its domestic aftermath. Beating the System (2015) depicts a dishwasher crammed to overflowing, with a pair of steel grommets punched midway up the canvas. In Self Portrait (2017), the two sides of a sink contain evidence of a certain cultured domesticity: stovetop espresso maker in two pieces, a crab leg, mismatched china, a schnapps glass, a toy giraffe. Her Possessions (Diptych), from the same year, does something similar with the two sides of an open suitcase, stuffed with lingerie, button-downs, a smartphone charger, and what could be a bottle of scotch. These mass-market goods mark whom one might be—a mother, a homemaker, an artist—suffering the deliciously old-fashioned notion that your consumption defines you to the world, an idea planted in our heads, collectively, by a century of successful marketing. Mulleady paints such objects with the purposiveness of tools on a Renaissance workbench. But this consumer surrealism comes with labels: in Fantom (2018), a green border frames two skates hanging from a chain, half swimming, half dead; their bodies entwine above an otter, possibly stuffed, that meets the viewer’s gaze with glassy eyes. Near its flippers are a conch shell, a green-and-yellow kitchen sponge, and a bottle of orange “Fantom” soda. The latter is a surreal sinkhole of its own, a parody of Fanta produced as part of the Topps card company’s Wacky Pack, in which send-ups of beloved brands accompany coupons for the same.

Lauren Satlowski: Lily Vase with Faces, 2020, oil on linen, 27 by 22 inches.

These painters may have mixed feelings about compulsory consumption—yet they’re not joyless. Satlowski wrings a little bit of spectral magic from groupings of ordinary, mass-market objects: Ziploc bags. Another poem about snow (2020) is a picture of an iridescent silver compact disc half-submerged in a bag of water propped between a wall and a table. A strip of clear packing tape keeps the bag from sagging. The tabletop has a slight sheen, and faintly reflects a line drawing done in Sharpie on the plastic, a cartoon figure in profile with a closed eye, hand raised perhaps in prayer or blessing like a Precious Moments bootleg, or as a shield against the sun of the disc. The only colors, really, in an otherwise taupe and transparent still life, are the green stripes of the bag’s closed seal and the rainbow stretching off the water and the silver disc. On one level, the painting is a careful study of refraction and reflection. On another, it’s the apotheosis of dumb objects: this sparse, slippery, junk-drawer still life seems to shimmer with the energy of the artist’s intense attention.

In another painting, Lily Vase with Faces (2020), another sandwich bag of water, this one tacked to the wall, contains a trio of lilies, thrust in bloom first. Gemlike foil cutouts or stickers of sock and buskin masks decorate the plastic’s surface. Puddle Water (2019) is less crisp: a bronze visage on a card seems to ripple through a baggie filled with slightly dingy water, the plastic’s crinkles riffing off the angle and tones of the face. Formally,
each of these three works fits into the category of “study” or “still life,” but the skewed juxtaposition of objects, and the insistence with which Satlowski depicts them, admits the surreal dimension where “things” have meaning beyond their advertised uses.

In surrealistic montage, any two things married in a work of art will form some more or less obscure third term. The artists infuse their work with the mad-libs of dreams. Orion Martin’s Bakers Steak (2015) is dominated by four illusionistic brass eyelets. Two daffodils nose out of them, casting hard-edged shadows. Behind this, Martin depicts a green glass banker’s lamp in shimmering detail, a piece of chiffon draped over the shade, the end of the brass pull chain flaring like petals. The sinuous flowers; the eyelets; the strange, maybe formal, maybe magical correspondence between the yellow petals and the brass all push beyond the merely observational. Another work from the same year, Triple Nickel, Tull, depicts more eyelets, this time perforating the front of a tall boot; the Victorian intensity of the boot’s stitching and the uncommon palette of aubergine, gray, khaki, and salmon leather, set parallel to the picture plane, read like geometric abstraction. The muddled background invokes girders, wood, screens, and partitions, or perhaps a nighttime cityscape. The tautness of Martin’s rendering draws out the kink of the boot—his charged treatment of dumb objects bridges the gap between Surrealism and Neue Sachlichkeit, a contemporaneous outgrowth of Dada in Weimar, in which the hard reality of the world includes an unconscious glow.

Orion Martin: Eczema Song II, 2017, oil on linen with bronze frame, 20 by 16 inches.

FORMALLY, ANXIETY AND AMBIVALENCE around consumer-driven identity manifests in a confusion of boundaries and perspectives, so that human anatomy, mass-produced objects, and the natural world merge and mix. For Satlowski, Martin, and Mulleady, painting is a tool to enact or illustrate the lamination of the human and the nonhuman, the organic and the manufactured. On top of this world of things, advertising (like surrealism) applies the sheen of sexual promise to the bounty of the visual field. Martin’s Bakers Steak recalls the textures and sensations, the idea of, Christian Schad’s 1927 Self Portrait of a man in a sheer shirt, clasped at the neck with cord—his chest hair visible, echoing his furrowed brow; and the severe lines and gnarly scar of his lover’s face in profile. In Martin’s Eczema Song II (2017), another crisply composed painting, a large pump bottle dispenses a cool, moon-shaped drop of lotion, lushly styled with a face—in contrast to the flushed, flattened features in the background, a leathery stitched seam apparently fixing the skin across the top of the canvas like a Ziploc closure. The background needs the foreground’s balm.

Jill Mulleady: Sex Murder, 2016, oil on canvas, 54¾ by 42 inches.

Unsurprisingly, these broad appeals to desire and objects lead us to objectify people and eroticize things. Some of Mulleady’s compositions have the taste of Lustmord, a popular theme in Weimar art that portrayed, if not sanctified, the confluence of sexual and violent urges. Sex Murder (2016), for instance, is exactly this sort of painting: a female figure tumbled out of bed, nude except for a single boot, her chest and stomach split open to reveal cracked, possibly hatching eggs inside. The line blurs between living and dead, person and thing. Where human bodies appear in Satlowski’s paintings, they’re rendered as articulated dummies—such as the spooning, comingling limbs and bones on the tan sand of Desert Landscape (2020), which include a naked skull, a doll-like mask and hair, and two sets of hips, but not enough legs or arms. The dummy in Total Dipshit (2021) drools with animal pleasure while standing in an absurdly large bouquet, enjoying the apparently physical pair of brush strokes arching above it like something from Agnes Pelton’s visions. Two other heads and a second shoulder stack behind the figure like echoes or understudies, the victims of crash tests.

Then there is Satlowski’s Eggs with Jacaranda Shadow (2020), five pale ova lolling in the light dappled through jacaranda petals, shiny and chilled-looking, dressed with shadows and underlined by the refractions of the vase. This wet arrangement evokes the bull testicles of another Surrealist touchstone, Georges Bataille’s 1928 novella, Histoire de l’oeil. In Satlowski’s eggs, the eroticization of food, consumption, orality, and ingestion, routed through the modern factory farm, meets the fetishization of life itself. In another remarkable painting by Mulleady, Transversus (2017), the insectoid plates of a grub or seahorse sparkle like bruised jewels; the creature rests inside a transparent egg. It is precious and protected, like a kind of yolk, but its realization is not guaranteed. Satlowski’s water-filled baggies are like bodies holding their little portions of the primordial sea.

Lauren Satlowski: Eggs with Jacaranda Shadow, 2020, oil on linen, 40 by 26 inches.

The imbrication of dreams, products, and waking life isn’t fanciful: it’s happening. Even now, ad men are working out how to get their products into our bodies by way of the unconscious. Timed to the 2021 Superbowl, Molson Coors invited customers to watch a wacky, psychedelic short before bed—complete with a zany cast of Coors-swilling mushrooms and narwhals—perchance to dream of the company’s new hard seltzer. If there is politics in these artists’ subsistent surrealism, in the apparent restraint of their style, it is the permission to bring a level of dreamy abandon to worldly signs as given, as packaged and sold; to reiterate the way that alternatives exist, egglike, within capitalism’s shell; to slip under the surface and live there, too. Theirs is a claim on the ways that things mean too much.

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This article appears in the April 2022 issue, pp. 64–71.


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