BLOG Reginald Francis

NWR Issue r19

The Surrealist Murmuration at Aberystwyth Arts Centre

The Surrealist Murmuration Exhibition in Gallery 2 at Aberystwyth Art Centre presents work from a broad range of artists. The space is divided into separate domains, each based on a specific theme. Collectively, these introduce the viewer to ‘surrealism’ as defined by the curators, John Richardson & John Welson.

Richardson and Welson align themselves with the ideology of surrealist pioneer, André Breton, when they ‘oppose so-called common sense, capitalist ideology, religious delusions, the miserablism of everyday life’ and all other components of ‘the unacceptable human condition’. Marxist sociologist and philosopher, Michael Löwy, contributes to the exhibition and describes surrealism as a protest against narrow-minded rationality, the commercialism of life, petty thinking and the boring realism of our money-dominated industrial society.

But how, in practical terms, do these artists achieve their highly ambitious goals? Richardson’s introduction suggests that by bringing together two or more unrelated images, surrealists are seeking to transform our view of ‘what is’ or ‘what can be’, sparking an enigmatic quality and revealing a glance at what he calls ‘the marvellous’.

One of the first sections of the exhibition is titled ‘The Domain of André Breton’s Arcane 17’. Arcane 17 is a prose poem by Breton on the theme of the tarot star card. This area features work by artists from near and far including Guy Girard, Mary Jacob, Löwy and Richardson himself. The broad variety of collage styles incorporates a mixed media of photo imagery, pastel and watercolour work. This ‘domain’ is described as an attempt to ‘reaffirm Breton’s refusal to accept things as they were and proclaim hope, renewal, freedom and love. Jacob’s ‘7 Stars Arcanium 17 Les Etoiles’ makes reference to Breton’s Star Card theme by presenting seven ‘star poems’ that are pasted onto a picture frame, using the Dadaist technique of collaging words cut out of pages from a book. Richardson’s framed collages feature recurring images of birds and butterflies, clearly an allusion to freedom and renewal. He also repeats the image of stockinged female legs in almost every collage.

‘The Domain of Passion,’ by Heather Nixon and John Welson features several large abstract works expressing dynamic movement, with energetic shapes painted in acrylic and pastel on a white background. These erratic formless pulsations swirl across the canvas in primary colours of red and blue and yellow. Their movement and colour evoke Edgar Degas’ dancers, their forms stripped away to leave only their energy.

‘The Domain of the Phantoms of Surrealism’ by Neil Coombs is a photomontage made up of close photographic studies of urban places. With patient and attentive framing, Coombs captures minimalistic shapes and textures from this environment, breaking down constantly shifting spaces into tranquil abstractions. Coombs arranges these images so that they form four faces. Their blank expressions stare at the viewer as impersonal and detached as the brutalist urban landscape.

In ‘The Domain of Revolt’ Richardson presents a number of collages that are intended to demonstrate his rebellion against capitalist culture. Self-appointed ‘emancipator’ of humanity, Richardson takes inspiration from Marx and tries to ‘transform the world’ through his work. Richardson’s incorporation of pop-art imagery echoes the postmodern movement of blending the boundary between art and popular culture by breaking the ‘frame’ that encompasses art he is questioning the value we place on the images we consume.

Richardson’s repeated use of stockinged female legs is reminiscent of Man Ray and Salvador Dali’s use of the female form. It is not clear whether Richardson is commenting on capitalism’s erotic fetishisation of the female body or indeed reinforcing the patriarchal tradition of viewing the female body as an erotic object.

The curators of this exhibition describe surrealism as an adventurous exploration of the ‘marvellous’. It is not clear what this unknowable hub of purpose and meaning is, or whether it is ever achievable. Ultimately, however, this exhibition highlights the vital role of the artist. By distorting perceptions of reality, viewers are encouraged to look at the world differently and perhaps be liberated from ideologies that reinforce inhumanity and closed-mindedness.

Reginald Francis is a blogger studying in the Department of English & Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University.

The Surrealist Murmuration runs until 25 November


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