As the 59th Venice Biennale announces its 2022 theme, “The Milk of Dreams," the upward trend of surreal representations becomes explicit in today’s post–pandemic art world. Living in a time of uncertainty and unknown, magical stories that go beyond logic allow us to suspend our notion of disbelief. Over spring break, I visited New York and checked out several of its museums and galleries that present novel, surreal narratives.
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum: Gillian Wearing
Gillian Wearing is an English conceptual artist, a member of the Young British Artists Movement, and winner of the 1997 Turner Prize. She mainly works with photographs and videos and probes the relationship between the inner identities and the public persona through bizzarre, uncanny representations of her subjects. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum presents Gillian Wearing: Wearing Masks from Nov. 5, 2021 through June 13, 2022, the first retrospective of Wearing in North America. The exhibit features more than a hundred pieces from throughout Wearing's artist career, covering photographs, videos, paintings, and sculptures.
Creepy and unsettling were the first two words that came to my mind upon viewing the exhibit. In her psychologically intense photographic portraits, people of all ages, genders, races, and social classes wear well–tailored masks and stare directly at the audience from their deep eye sockets—an effect produced by the masks. Moving around the exhibition hall, I felt myself being watched from every angle. These supposedly neutral headshots turn into surreal images of undefined entities, and at the same time, they become confrontational.
Under the eerie lifelike masks, an individual's true identity becomes obscured. Masks, both literal and metaphorical, play a major role in Wearing's work as she interrogates the tensions between the self and the society in today's media–saturated world and explores the performative nature of the collective societal personality.
Pace Gallery: David Byrne
David Byrne is a Scottish–American singer, songwriter, actor, and artist. He's best known as one of the founding members and the lead singer of the American new wave band Talking Heads. He is also the leading actor in the acclaimed broadway show David Byrne's American Utopia. In his solo exhibition How I Learned About Non–Rational Logic at Pace Gallery, David Byrne shows his artistic talent in his lighthearted, witty drawings over the last 20 years. His works are often imbued with surreal, playful qualities, revealing a new world of connections beyond logic and rationality.
My favorite piece is called Immersive, which shows a small figure standing stiffly below a relatively huge set of headphones. It connects visual art and music in a very explicit manner by defining their immersive quality and commenting on how both forms of media speak in a way that everyday language doesn't. They're often felt, rather than told. The exaggerated difference in scale of the figure and the headphones adds a sense of humor and further conveys Bryne's message of non–rational logic. His drawings are simply funny and weird, and yet captivating with their own narratives.
Yancey Richardson: Carolyn Drake
Carolyn Drake is a Magnum American photographer. She mainly works on long term photo–based projects, which often involve direct collaboration with her subjects. Her body of work brings culture and history around the world and challenges the dominant narratives, seeking alternatives to them. Yancey Richardson presents a collection of photographs from her series Knit Club, in which Drake collaborated with a group of local women in Mississippi.
Large–scale prints of women are loaded with esoteric motifs—to enter into Yancey Richardson's space was to enter a world of enchantment for me. Most of the figures in pictures are hidden behind objects or partially masked. A mother's face is fully obscured by plaster, and her child lying on her shoulder turns around. A woman holds an eerie painting of a pale, doll–like girl in front of her, while at the same being held by a kid around her knees. The selection of these surreal portraits foregrounds a sense of unknownness of the subjects, and prompts the audience to question the conventional representations associated with femininity and motherhood. However, these gothic images are not just grotesque, but metaphor for a group of women determinedly living outside the male gaze or control.
The rise of mystical imagination in the art world offers new possibilities and alternatives to the given immediate reality. It's not an escape, but rather a constant re–envisioning of the present, in which everyone can partake and realize something new.