New York

Leonora Carrington, And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur!, 1953, oil on canvas, 23 3⁄5 × 27 1⁄2".

Leonora Carrington, And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur!, 1953, oil on canvas, 23 3⁄5 × 27 1⁄2".

Leonora Carrington

Gallery Wendi Norris Offsite

Leonora Carrington’s backstory is just as remarkable as her work. Born in 1917, the rebellious British textile heiress and art-school dropout had a passionate affair in her youth with Max Ernst, an elder statesman of the twentieth-century avant-garde. The mounting pressures of World War II seemed to parallel her own ascending audacity: After she was separated from Ernst by his internment in France, Carrington threatened to kill Hitler while at the British embassy in Madrid. Sometime thereafter, she entered a mental institution in Santander, Spain; the experience was traumatizing. By 1942, she had found artistic and political refuge in a milieu of native and European émigré Surrealists in Mexico City; she would spend most of her life there until her death in 2011. In addition to scores of paintings and sculptures, she also left behind bracingly strange and deadpan-funny works of short fiction along with a memoir of her time in the asylum, all of which were reissued in 2017. 

The fairly reserved hang for the artist’s first New York solo show in twenty-two years was a marked contrast to the novelty display schemes employed at the Brooklyn Museum this past spring for an exhibition of the work of Frida Kahlo, Carrington’s contemporary. Carrington’s show was focused on the real story: More than twenty of the artist’s haunting and gorgeously detailed paintings were featured alongside six sculptures originally designed in 1976 as masks for Opus Siniestrus: The Story of the Last Egg (1970), a madcap play she wrote but never staged.

Pieces dating from the 1940s through the ’70s gave a reasonable overview of how her oils segued from the dark, cramped scenarios of Down Below, 1940, and Garden Bedroom, 1941, to the eerie serenity of And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur!, 1953. The divine, veiled personages of Operation Wednesday, 1969, stand on ground inscribed with mysterious texts and symbols. Near their feet is an apparition of a disgusting little feline creature and a skeleton missing its lower jaw. With a feather quill, the bony cadaver delicately scrawls MY GOD I CRY, among other phrases, into an open book. Yet the emotional drama implied is oddly muted due to Carrington’s focus on filigreed details, ultimately rendering her tableaux, for all their fairy-tale charm, somewhat cold and ambivalent. 

Her sharply angled portraits and compressed perspectives signal a deep affinity for anachronistic historical styles, techniques, and media such as Northern Renaissance painting and egg tempera, a medium she favored. Like her fellow Surrealists, she loved to pervert the rationalism of classical painting. Take the fallen rose in Daughter of the Minotaur!, which is noticeably out of proportion to a pair of white hounds nearby, or the picture’s pathways of light, which are unmoored from any direct source. In Green Tea, 1942—painted after the artist left Europe for good and while she was briefly living in New York—a paradise of rolling green hills is suffocated by a massive, enclosing hedge. To the left of this kingdom’s stepped entrance is a lady swaddled in cow-print fabric, beatifically standing in her own circle of grass next to an animal-legged cauldron with a recherché hat that’s topped by four tiny busts of reindeer. Two dogs pose in the foreground: One has a fine mop of hair and a smarmy look in its eye, while the other, burdened with a row of tumescent tits, looks perfectly vicious. In a potentially great, yet-to-be-written novel, Carrington could be the wicked twin sister of the Disney concept artist Mary Blair. Imagine if the animated film Alice in Wonderland (1951) had been art directed by an ecofeminist and a founder of Mexico’s women’s liberation movement (as Carrington was). Though the paintings shown here tended to be small, they did not, after all, depict a small world. Carrington’s universe was vastly curious and portentous: a pantomime, perhaps, of the doom that lurks within ideal vistas, as observed from the life of her mind.