Yesterday, I was invited to attend a preview of In Wonderland: Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States at LACMA. The show is the first of its kind, defying the traditional presentation of female surreal artists as merely wives and mistresses. It also conveys how the art movement was able to reach new heights in North America, where gender barriers were being broken more quickly than in Europe and additional inspiration and energy was coming from Central America.
Using the Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland as a symbolic starting point, the exhibition collects 175 pieces by 47 artists, mixing big names (Kahlo, Tanning, Miller) with lesser-known ones. Walking through the exhibit, one can see the artwork mutate from essentially traditional pieces with surreal themes to deconstructed ones with political messages.
At the same time, one can observe the styles and subject matter of artists in the United States and Mexico come closer together, commingle, and grow. Traditional European topics such as the game of chess and the bright colors associated with Central American culture mutate and give way to new and hybrid forms.
Amidst the change, certain themes recur. Both European and Central American takes on masquerading are shown in full force. As the artists and the movement collect steam, the masks transform from something whimsical or sometimes magical into a source of power and symbol of threat to the mainstream.
Curators Dr. Ilene Susan Fort (LACMA) and Tere Arcq (Mexico City’s Museo de Arte Modferno) build such themes and make links between artists, countries, and cultures subtly and effectively. They sharply and respectfully provide pieces of a puzzle rather than force broad strokes upon an extensive and multifaceted subject.
One wall depicts women fading into their respective homes. The cultural touchstones, forms of media, and decades of creation were different, but the messages similar.
The layout itself reinforced the surreal theme, with angular walls dividing areas that one can be easily missed or reveal themselves depending on the visitor’s perspective.
The use of ropes to cordon off and stitch together sections hinted at the ties between cultures and artists as well as the mixed-and-matched media.
At the farthest point of the exhibition is a hall where portraits are blown up on a large wall. This is the only point with a window to the “real world,” and an appropriate spot for a desk with catalogs to put the pieces in context–although I plan on returning to check out the audio accompaniment nonetheless.
Beginning with tweaked, tortured, and loaded portraiture and landscapes, the show explodes into paper, sculpture, and photography–not to mention a letter in which Dorothea Tanning describes her dreams to Joseph Cornell and ends by saying something like, “Max Ernst says hi.”
One of the final pieces is a photograph of a Happening that shows the movement’s effect on the Women’s Liberation Movement (and eventually the Riot Grrrl scene). The gathering of naked hippies in Central Park happens to take place by an Alice in Wonderland statue, providing a perfect bookend to a comprehensive exhibition.
In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States runs from January 29 to May 6, 2012 and is as inspiring as it is extensive and awesome. And if you’re a member, you can probably see it in advance…