Boston

“Mirror Images: Women, Sureralism, and Self-Representation”

How does an intergenerational legacy of women artists linked to Surrealism look, and how does it expand the way we view that movement's continuing impact? This ambitious, sometimes stunning exhibition (which is currently in Miami, and travels to San Francisco in January 1999) attempted to chart such a history, constructing lineages among twenty-three artists of three distinct “generations”: from Claude Cahun to Francesca Woodman to Cindy Sherman, from Frida Kahlo to Ana Mendieta to Paula Santiago, from Meret Oppenheim to Louise Bourgeois to Michiko Kon. Cocurated by Surrealism scholar Whitney Chadwick with Katy Kline and Helaine Posner of the List Center, the show asserted that image making by women who associated themselves with Surrealism (or were associated with the movement while refusing the label) took the artist's own body as a starting point in a way that the male Surrealists, for whom the body remained fundamentally Other, never did.

The exhibition highlighted interior and exterior perceptions of the self, the celebration of imagination and dreams, and the penchant for doubling and masquerade. Among the more striking themes to emerge in “Mirror Images” were the dramatically different forms of shamanism and sacrificial ritual seen in the work of Dorothy Cross, Bourgeois, Kahlo, Mendieta, Marta Maria Perez Bravo, Paula Santiago, Annette Messager, and Kiki Smith. The viewer was greeted at the entrance to the show by Cross’ imposing Virgin Shroud, 1993, an outsize totem swathed in wedding train and cowhide with a crown sprouting four soft yet spikey cow teats, along with her wry Stilettos, 1994, a pair of heels whose covering of fuzzy udders (teats protruding at the toes) recalls Oppenheim’s canonical fur-lined teacup. Nearby images of Santeria-inspired bodily enactments by Bravo and Mendieta faced Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940, and Santiago’s eerie child-size garments made of wax, rice paper, hair, and blood. The relationships between the animate and inanimate are richly suggestive, challenging boundaries between life and death (as in Sherman, Cahun, and Leonor Fini) as well as distinctions between the body and its natural or built environments (in the work of Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Bourgeois, Yayoi Kusama, Kon, Dorothea Tanning, Woodman, and Mendieta).

While the show’s real dazzler was the paintings of first-generation Surrealists—which are wonderfully fresh precisely because museums still tend to overlook them in favor of Dali, Ernst, and Magritte—what was most provocative was its often-exquisite visual symmetries: Kusama’s wide-striped black and turquoise dress bursting with phallic excrescences next to Woodman’s stark photographs in which her body disappears into the wallpaper; three large self-portraits in which Sherman has decayed or disappeared alongside Mendieta’s smaller pictures in which traces of the artist’s physical presence linger in town squares or wilder expanses. Kay Sage’s phantasmagorical paintings, in which the natural body or landscape is simultaneously seen as architecture, evoke Woodman’s as well as Mendieta’s more site-specific photographs, while Varo’s Mimicry (Mimesis), 1960, imitates Carrington’s Self-Portrait, ca. 1938, in which the feet and arms of a chair resemble those of its sitter.

Given the focus on three generations of artists from different countries, it is hardly surprising that historical and cultural specificity tended to get lost. Despite the care of the curators, the connections between these artists and Surrealism could be confusing, and the exclusive focus on women artists begged certain questions. It was hard not to want Kusama’s colorful collages, fairly buzzing with organic life, alongside those of Ernst; Carrington’s Double Portrait, 1940, explicitly refers to Ernst’s birdlike alter ego. The scholarly catalogue serves to fill in some blanks: Hans Bellmer’s photographs are discussed with Woodman’s and Sherman’s; Sherman’s work is compared with Cahun’s; Kahlo’s and María Izquierdo’s understanding of identity is distinguished from that of their European counterparts. The fact that there is raw material for several more shows here in no way detracts from what “Mirror Images” contributes.

Carol Ockman