From the outside, Minnesota appears so snowy and cold that it could easily be mistaken for Russia or Sweden. So two new surrealism-inspired exhibitions by artists from those countries fit right in.
Sergei Isupov’s “Surreal Promenade” at the Russian Museum of Art and Erik Johansson’s “Imagine: Surreal Photography” at the American Swedish Institute both offer upside-down visions of the world. While there are no Salvador Dali-esque melting clocks in their creations, there is a sense that the artworks came to them through dreams. The subconscious isn’t always a great place to visit without an analyst in tow.
Isupov, a Russian-born, Massachusetts-based ceramic artist, constructs hybrid animal-human forms, mysterious gigantic heads, narrative character-driven dioramas with chopped-off hands floating in them, and even three-dimensional scenes of bucolic Russian saunas.
That’s all dandy, but his ceramics about sexual relations at times portray women either being objectified or attacked by men, with only a bear there to keep her safe. Oh, and there are also a lot of eyeballs, suggestive of surveillance, voyeurism or even the so-called “third eye,” where intuition lives.
Take the 2012 piece “Dangerous Friendship.” A woman with red heels stands in a bodysuit that envelops her arms; bears flank her on either side, eagerly eyeing her. She is both the object of desire and danger for man and bear alike — very femme-fatale like. Except she has zero agency; she is just an object for men and bear to discuss.
On her broad back, a Russian soldier is depicted sipping beers with another bear, pensive looks on their faces. Are they friends? Enemies? Judging from the title, it may be a critique of the Russian military, but the woman carries the burden of it all.
The exhibit includes several other cringe-y pieces. In “The Challenge,” a man wearing only polka dot shorts reaches angrily for a young, nude woman as a bear tries to protect her. He scratches the man’s back, the scars visible. The artist doesn’t offer any suggestions on how to read these works, but the cacophony of human-animal characters is very “Alice in Wonderland”-like.
Despite the sometimes problematic subject matter, TMORA curator Masha Zavialova has done a nice job of contextualizing the work in psychoanalysis and surrealism, both of which draw on the unconscious mind. She draws on the beginnings of surrealism, which emerged at the turn of the 20th century, shortly after the birth of psychoanalysis. Artists were fascinated by the possibilities of unlocking the unconscious and using automatic writing. That is exactly what Isupov explores in much of his work.
If Isupov’s exhibition reflects an inward journey, Johannson’s show focuses on surrealistic interpretations of the world around him. The Prague-based artist was in line to become a sixth-generation farmer in southern Sweden, but gave it all up for photography.
As an artist creating large-scale and highly detailed photographs — the photos are nearly 6 feet wide and each file, composed in Adobe Photoshop, has more than 200 layers — his goal is to produce eight images per year. Nearly three dozen works are scattered throughout the institute’s Turnblad Mansion and Osher Gallery.
“Imagine: Surreal Photography” devotes not one but two videos to showing his process. Photoshop is no longer cutting-edge technology, however, and there’s nothing particularly fascinating in watching how he uses it. Photoshopping things to make them appear real is now common, whether it’s in publications, on the internet, or in selfies on social media. But whereas those touch-ups might take hours or even minutes, Johannson spends weeks on each work, which separates it from commercial photography.
One of the subtler photographs is “Breaking Up” (2015). A house is split in two, and one half becomes its own island in the middle of ice-filled water. The house is no longer functional, and it’s not a space of shared unity. It’s a clever device to explore the emotional experience of a domestic space broken apart.
But despite his creative vision, some of Johannson’s work still has a commercial sensibility. “A Leap of Faith” shows a businessman, briefcase in one hand and a balloon in the other, walking to the edge of a tall platform overlooking a cliff. On a staircase leading to the platform, a sign warns people: “Fly at own risk!” In smaller type it adds: “But if you never take a risk, where would you be?”
A sweet message, if hokey and overly idealistic. Perhaps in this frozen landscape, it’s the kind of hope we need now.