“Pop Surrealism”

Sprawling through Ridgefield, Connecticut’s Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, “Pop Surrealism” proves one point above all else: at the end of the century in the visual arts, invention is a form of debt. The mutant sensibility at work in this droll, smartly curated exhibition proposes the marriage of Surrealism’s dream-laden fetish for the body eroticized and grotesque and Pop art’s celebration of the shallower, corrosively bright world given over to the packaged good.

The smartness of “Pop Surrealism” is in its adept nose for sniffing out a sensibility that has taken root so widely that probably no survey show of the zeitgeist, intentional or otherwise, can avoid it. Indeed, this particular exhibition is a clever complement to 1992’s “Post Human,” in which curator Jeffrey Deitch put forth the tech-savvy notion that the rush of modern life and its body-changing arts (plastic surgery and gene splicing among them) are fast-forwarding us into “a bold realm of artificial evolution.” “Pop Surrealism” takes up that suggestion in shrewd stride.

Of course, both Surrealist and Pop impulses have stubbornly reappeared like viral strains for many years—and not only in art but in films, in advertising, in rock videos. Surrealism’s scabrous shock of unconscious desires made visible has become common fare for generations that nod off nightly in front of the madcap, hallucinatory special effects of MTV. Breton’s 1924 manifesto to make an art “in the absence of any control exercised by reason, and beyond any aesthetic or moral preoccupation” pales beside real images of Bosnia’s veritable Inferno, while the newest science pops out clones like so many Marilyns staring from a portrait multiple by Warhol.

Sired by this odd art-historical couple, the work gathered for “Pop Surrealism” by Richard Klein, Dominique Nahas, Ingrid Schaffner, and Harry Philbrick (the Aldrich’s director) is all worldly knowingness, with a taste for the antic and macabre. There is a generalized notion that informs this art: that technology is both sinister and silly. It feeds images that picture bodies, objects, and the world itself as madly reconfigured. There is a broad humor here, with its own peculiar sort of undertow, an undertow heavy with cynicism about technological advance and the Pop-inflected transformation into product of everything under the sun. Common pieties though these politically correct sentiments may be, so much of this art smirks as it bleeds, prompting laughter of disbelief and a lacerating mordancy in equal measure.

The show is divided in three, with galleries devoted, as Philbrick says in his catalogue introduction, to “the grotesque body; surrealist icons of popular culture; and surreal comics and the influence of ‘low art’ underground comics on ‘high art.’” The artists here are almost all young, and it is worth noting that some of the “senior” contemporary figures in this line—Robert Gober, Yasumasa Morimura, Charles Ray—are absent. In an exhibition this large, with 119 works by 73 artists, there is inevitable slack. It is also inevitable that so programmatic a show will favor art that prefers punch lines to pathos and borders at times on pedantry tricked out in black humor’s garb.

The most interesting, troubling work pokes hard, though not without whimsy, at the notion of the body itself as a sort of millennial bellwether for technological change and its attendant psychological issues. If the body is identity’s home, then each house here is thrown into the air as if in Dorothy’s dream in Kansas. Even history, with its presumption of fact, falls hard in John Currin’s homely double-portrait, The Kennedys, 1996, in which identical JFKs hold hands, one of them in drag. But then, neither person nor product is safe in this spectral world of sexual puppets and landscapes seriously askew.

There is Takashi Murakami’s exuberant goofiness with a nightmarish edge in his five-panel painting called Pity, 1997: a Pop-colored delirium of sharklike teeth, multiple mouths, eyes, and gullets. There is Nancy Davidson’s pneumatic blue torso girdled in a tent’s worth of white satin and tied, bondage style, to the beams above, a bulbous effigy awaiting violation. Georganne Deen’s We Must’ve Been Out of Our Minds, 1997, in oil on silk is a cunning, nasty little work in which a couple of bipedal peas-in-pods are fashion plates done up in Vuitton, and none too timid about the statement they make. Inka Essenhigh parses anatomies as interlocking machines, invoking Duchamp’s drawing in the Large Glass. Ashley Bickerton’s triple self-portrait displays him as trans-sexual, a tattooed biker gone to seed and a hunk so muscle-bound and mightily endowed as to assume a healthy dose of bioengineering. And then there are Pieter Schoolwerth’s cruel tableaux that entwine corporate logos, products, media stars, and mutant figures in the most concise argument for the candy-coated terror that Surrealism crossed with Pop can wield.

There is something sharp and abrasive here. Wicked speculation about the future, of course. But more to the point, a knowing look, for all the art history these works exploit, at this time and this place: our own wobbly phantasm.

Steven Henry Madoff is a New York-based writer and editor.