If Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei’s NGV exhibition is a little ‘art anyone could do’ (from cat pics to soup cans) then Lurid Beauty, an exhibition of Australian Surrealism, is art anyone can feel. Unlike Warhol and Ai Weiwei, little of it is repetitive, except for the feelings the works inspire. The works are weird, visceral, voyeuristic, fetishistic, personal, and indeed, luridly beautiful. This exhibition, at NGV at Federation Square, features pieces – paintings and sculptures, films and installations as well as quotes and poetry from the publication Angry Penguins that each subvert the familiar. They repulse and attract, confound, mystify and entrance.
Pop art is the every day made into decor, while much of surrealist art was once decor and is made into something more. It takes all the subterranean furniture of the mind, mixes it with myth, toys with perspective and throws it in the face of the viewer in all of its leering, and disturbing uncomfortableness.
Surreal is the nightmare, the dream, the fractured psychology and mythology without being didactic.
It reveals the inner uncanniness of the every day. Basically, Surrealism is the suspicion confirmed that the looming hat stand in a darkened hall way is indeed a person. And a hat stand, and neither. Strangely, I am comfortable with this. It might be years of considering myths and folk tales, or just existing in the mire of the 24/7 onslaught of this post-Postmodernist world. Dunno.
As a reader and writer, I might be to used to reading into works, so that pop art’s seeming flat resistance to layered meaning leaves me with nothing but see it and keep going, like driving past a field of flowers. However, pop art can be ‘read into’ – as critiques of mass production and consumerism, beauty in the mundane, the design of product as an art form etc. It’s just that it doesn’t move me. Surrealism does something else and it’s not a matter of like/dislike.
Surrealism can be childlike and sometimes childish. So many people with issues getting them out on the canvas.
I attend exhibitions like this one, not because it’s an event, but because art speaks. Pieces like this induce responses and, as a writer, I’m interested in not only being in touch with how they are inducing these and what these responses are, but potentially in using them to inform what I do. I’m interested in the idea that the artist is one who sees and works out ways to render what they see. With Surrealism, it’s also about what is felt, dreamt about and obsessed over. If part of my writing is interpreting myself and the world around me, surrealists are doing the same. In writing, most of this self stuff is disguised, or transformed, and so too in Surreal art. What pop art flattens, surreal art makes lumpy, and often ugly and dramatic. Lumpy, ugly and dramatic may correspond to conflict in narrative.
In the 30s and 40s, reactions to surrealism would have been more intense. Now, ‘surreal’ as a term is more often mistakenly used than not. Those in the midst of unfolding conflicts or violence or accidents invariably remark on how these are ‘surreal’ when they mean unexpected, vivid, and surprisingly all too real. But these incidents, as sudden or as rare as they are, aren’t surreal. They’re immediate. Perhaps, this art feels immediate because of the reactions it provokes or inspires even if these reactions are less intense?
Thus, if you’re in Melbourne, I recommend seeing Lurid Beauty. Get out of the heat and go enjoy being slightly discomforted in a cool, quiet gallery of weird before it’s over.