A giant bronze of Alice in Wonderland painted white sits immediately inside the entrance of “Its Surreal Thing: The Temptation of Objects.”
Just behind Kiki Smith’s “Seer (Alice II)” standing on a tall pedestal is Jeanne Silverthorne’s “Phosphorescent Betty,” a 5-inch high rubber, hair and phosphorescent pigment sculpture of a middle aged woman in a dress.
The striking juxtaposition of size and subject captures the essence of the Sheldon Museum of Art exhibition that looks at surrealism not as an art movement or individual pieces of work, but as a way of arranging and viewing objects.
“It isn’t about surrealism proper, but the spirit and tendencies that fed into surrealism and issue out of it,” said Sheldon director Jorge Daniel Veneciano, who put together the show from Sheldon's collection and holdings of area collectors. “It’s really mixing objects together so the show itself becomes surreal.”
I believe in the future resolution
of these two states, dream and reality,
which are seemingly so contradictory,
into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality.
— André Breton
To that end, there are few surrealists per se found in the exhibition.
A 1974 refabrication of Man Ray’s “Cadeau,” his famous iron with tacks attached to the bottom, sits in a case. “Catch” is an unsettling 1947 distortion of the human body in sculpture from American surrealist David Hare. That old trickster Marcel Duchamp, who wouldn't want to be tagged as a surrealist, is represented by his career retrospective in miniature “Box in a Valise, Series E.”
But the show is definitely surreal.
The exhibition includes pieces that date from 1893 — Medardo Rosso’s “Bambino Ebreo (Jewish Boy)," a post-impressionist bust of a head that seems to simultaneously be emerging and receding — to contemporary work like Nicola Constantino’s “Vanity,” a 2010 vanity with a video of the Argentine artist combing her hair on the mirror.
Those pieces are close together in the gallery, but don’t play off each other. By and large, however, the objects do — and they do so with some themes.
We find ourselves confronted by a new affirmation of the omnipresence of desire, which has remained, since the beginnings, surrealism’s sole act of faith.
— Surrealist Manifesto
Constantin Brancusi’s “Princess X,” part of Sheldon’s collection, is surrounded by Manuel Neri’s “Odalisque II” and Barbara Hepworth’s “Small Form Resting” in a erotic grouping of marble sculptures.
A family of toads has taken up residence in my left armpit and, when one of them moves, it tickles.
— Comte de Lautréamont
“Princess X” shares a gallery with post-modernist pieces where Vincent Szarek’s "White Wilson's Peak," a large sculpture of the Coors beer can mountains made out of automobile fiberglass sits next to David Gilhooly’s tiny “Frog Banana-Split Sundae” (exactly what it says it is).
"Triad" three “empty” white “frames” by Colin Smith hangs on a wall adjacent to Nancy Friedemann’s “Self Portrait of Payapa, First Chapter Excerpt” a glossy black panel with a white pearl-surrounded light hanging in front.
Friedemann’s piece and her floor work “URNS” are black objects in an otherwise white gallery — another kind of contrasting pairing — like the classic marble on one end of the gallery, the fiberglass on the opposite side — that powers the exhibition.
Some of the juxtapositions are disturbing — a model for Roxy Paine’s shiny stainless steel tree “Breach” turns dark sitting next to Claudia Alvarez’s creepy “Falling Rope of Silence,” a piece with armless babies on swings.
as the chance encounter of a sewing machine
and an umbrella on an operating table.
— Comte de Lautréamont
Others are humorous — Alexander Calder’s “Snake on Arch” becomes a snake in the garden of Eddie Dominguez’s “Anton’s Flower’s II,” itself a grouping of plates, cups and other dinnerware stacked and arranged to resemble a flower garden.
Dominguez is one of many area artists and artists with University of Nebraska-Lincoln connections, represented in the show, including "Functional Art Series: Toaster" from Jason Briggs that sits next to “Cadeau” in household-appliances-gone-awry vitrine.
There are plenty of works inside boxes, from Joseph Cornell’s “Pipe Box” to David Ireland’s giant, statue-filled “Box of Angels” and Chiharu Shiota’s “State of Being,” which connects with Duchamp via the web of criss-crossed strings that recall his installation “sixteen miles of string.”
Our brains are dulled by the
incurable mania of wanting to make
the unknown known, classifiable.
— André Breton
Familiar pieces become surreal in the context of their placement in the exhibition — for example, Elie Nadelman’s “Man in the Open Air,” a 1915 modernist sculpture of a man wearing a bowler hat.
“This is not a surrealist piece,” Veneciano said. “But in the show it becomes surreal because of (Rene) Magritte (whose surrealist paintings featured top-hatted men). It’s against a window, looks like its floating and looks at what’s behind it.”
The window overlooks the Great Hall where Martin Puryear’s bomb-like “The Nightmare” sits next to a black "Marshmallow Sofa." Nearby is Joseph Havel’s “Silk Drape” that plays off Judith Shea’s “Shield” while a pair of 2-foot-high Lucha Libre wrestlers are tucked under a staircase.
The exhibition even stretches outside, incorporating Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s “Torn Notebook,” “Fallen Dreamer,” Tom Otterness’ giant head on the museum’s front steps and the full-sized version of Paine’s tree.
A flight of red pigeons thunders around my thoughts.
— Arthur Rimbaud
Those who are regular Sheldon visitors also will be surprised to see Isamu Noguchi’s “Song of the Bird (Bird Song),” the two-pylon granite-and-marble sculpture that stood for 50 years in the Great Hall, standing in the middle of one of the exhibition’s galleries.
It’s paired with Niho Kozuru’s “Transplanted,” a rubber-over-steel-rod post-modernist piece created in response to the Noguchi piece. The resonance between the two is far different and more surreal than when they were next to each other in the Great Hall.
Scattered throughout the galleries and in italic here are pieces of text. Taking a cue and sometimes literally the words from the original surrealists of the 1920s, the words that complete the exhibition, aren’t descriptive or necessarily literally suggestive.
But they can be:
The Hatter opened his eyes very wide; but all he said was, 'Why is a raven like a writing-desk?'
— Lewis Carroll
That quotation from “Alice in Wonderland” puts a verbal-meets-visual twist on the show, paired with Stella Waitzkin’s untitled sculpture that finds a dead blackbird atop some books.
Arriving from always, you’ll go away everywhere.
— Arthur Rimbaud
Paying no attention to chronology and very little to the movement that gives the exhibition its name, “Its Surreal Thing: The Temptation of Objects” is refreshingly non-academic. Rather, it’s great, strange fun that conveys surrealism in three dimensions, engaging and entertaining the eye and the mind.