George Tooker's The Subway has the atmosphere of a bad dream.
The Surrealist movement eroded barriers between waking life and dreams, between the conscious mind and subconscious. Now museum curators are borrowing a page when it comes to boundary breaking. They're reexamining how surrealism and its presumed opposite, realism, might not have been such strictly defined camps. The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art explores this notion in Real/Surreal, a traveling exhibition on loan from New York's Whitney Museum of American Art (through April 27). This is a terrific show that challenges us to see familiar artists -- and some lesser-known ones -- in a new light.
Real/Surreal combines painting, photography and works on paper. One of the most arresting works, and one that best typifies the theme, is George Tooker's 1950 painting The Subway. The painting is done in a realistic style and depicts a mundane subject -- people amid the underground corridors and turnstiles of a subway station -- but has the atmosphere of a bad dream that is slowly taking hold of one's mind.
The lack of a single perspective point keeps one's eyes anxiously shifting, and the central female figure has a look of dread on her face. Men in drab overcoats, all with the same face, grimly go about their business. Even the museum's lighting of Tooker's painting is harsh, which may make viewers feel like they're also trapped in the uneasy artificial light of this eerie station.
While the surrealistic elements in Tooker's painting are clear, Edward Hopper's Cape Cod Sunset, a painting from 1934, takes a subtler approach. While few people would think of Hopper as a surrealist, Whitney Museum curator Carter Foster has referred to his "narrative ambiguity" and "uncanny" qualities. While Cape Cod Sunset seems like a benign scene of a white clapboard house at the edge of a stand of trees, Hopper's trademark sense of pervading loneliness is present. The home's shades are half-drawn, and there's no sign of human activity.
Other highlights in the show include a painting by Kay Sage, one of the leading female surrealists; two fascinatingly nightmarish paintings by Henry Koerner; and several works by Spanish-born artist Federico Castellón, whose style will appeal to fans of Salvador Dalí. Castellón's 1938 painting The Dark Figure will remind viewers of Dalí's blend of crisp technique and disturbing imagery, with subjects ranging from disconnected body parts to a shrouded figure.
Real/Surreal will you think of artists considered mainstays of folky realism, like Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton, in a new way. They're still not surrealists but, as MMoCA curator Richard Axsom has observed, the divide between the movements is a "porous slash," not a firm one. Along with The Mystery Beneath, MMoCA's companion show of related works from its own permanent collection, Real/Surreal is a winning start to the new year and sure to have wide appeal.