“It is not the fear of madness which will oblige us to leave the flag of imagination furled,” artist-philosopher Andre Breton proclaimed in his landmark 1924 polemic, Manifesto of Surrealism. “The case against the realistic attitude demands to be examined, following the case against the materialistic attitude." Our cultural memory tends toward a revisionist, well, clock-washing of Surrealist aesthetics, and for good reason—melting clocks are sexy, and sex sells all sorts of things, like mugs and totes and other overpriced museum gift shop paraphernalia. Posters of prints of paintings by Salvador Dali don’t tell the whole story of the movement’s revolutionary praxis, however, nor do they speak to its ontological relationship with Trotskyism, or anarchy, or the burgeoning anti-colonialist sentiment sweeping early 20th century Europe (it bears repeating that Dali was a Hilterian sympathizer who was expelled from Surrealist circles for his ideological views, by the way. Good clocks, though).
Thinkers like George Bataille and Wolfgang Paalen populated a scene defined by its own intellectual upheaval, and it was that active tension with the status quo that lent Surrealism its urgency; Freudian underpinnings aside, Breton and co.’s investment in visual destabilization directly opposed and decried Fascism’s frightening world-wide crescendo throughout the 1920s and '30s. None of this is to suggest that heyday Surrealism has been unfairly portrayed as a hedonistic romp (those guys got down, for sure), but merely to emphasize the political import of its taste for imbalance. When positivism fails to protect us, when systems betray our trust, how on earth can we depend on our own collective perspicacity? What happens then? For the Surrealists, the answer was to make flux beautiful, to render the unfamiliar delicious, and to challenge the slow choke of totalitarianism with bright, breaching chaos. Impossibility reigned because real life had proven insufficient; dangerous, even.
There are many factors explaining Surrealism’s recent reintroduction to contemporary art (figuration is enjoying a renaissance, body-horror sells for potentially... prurient reasons), but it feels notable that women artists feature heavily on the forefront of this particular upswing. The original Surrealists sported a number of women in their ranks (you can read more about their individual stories here), but those contributions were forcibly obfuscated by the prejudices of the time period. Not enough has changed. It seems fitting that in 2019, as right-wing bigotry reaches a global boiling point and the sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia that built America manifest as foundational rather than old-fashioned, verisimilitude feels increasingly inadequate all over again. Facts aren’t facts any more—maybe they never were. Viewers crave a visual language fit to externalize the fire inside, a new lexicon that can mimic the molten fluidity knocking our experiences off-kilter. This implicitly feminist breed of new Surrealism bears the weight of art history without buckling, happy to mount a concerted, stylized protest against the optics patriarchy leverages against us. Surrealism’s original wave felt extra-comfortable using women’s bodies as bait, but this latest influx repurposes the lexis of oppression for better, stranger ends. If meaning is fugitive, then anything can happen, right?
Here are nine women artists redefining Surrealism right now.
Originally hailing from Nova Scotia, Berlin-based painter Ambera Wellmann cross-pollinates object and subject by applying mimetic porcelain finishes to humanoid forms. As her figures round forth from pools of rich, dark color, unexpected hauntings happen—eroticism mingles with the jiggly ambiguity of her surfaces to form fragments, at once inscrutable and achingly intimate. After winning the prestigious RBC painting prize in Canada two years ago, Wellmann has shown in a number of high-profile galleries stateside, like Paul Kasmin Gallery and Arsenal Contemporary, both in New York. She has also had work featured at MoMA Warsaw and the Australian Center for Contemporary Art in Melbourne. Her latest solo venture, in media res, is currently on view at Lulu Gallery in Mexico City.
2018 Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program Fellow Curtiss may call Bushwick home, but her pitch-perfect, historically sensitive paintings have traveled all over the world, including T293 in Rome and the white cube in London. These high-contrast, technicolor tableaus reference everything from Christina Ramberg to Courbet to BDSM, and it’s that crispy canonical crunch that transforms these pieces into portals to another timespace. Curtiss soared onto our collective radar after a spectacular feature at Chelsea gallery Field Projects in 2016, and has since secured representation from Anton Kern Gallery in New York and Various Small Fires in Los Angeles. Her 2017 solo turn at 106 Green Gallery in Brooklyn (now closed) included a dizzying array of gorgeous, meaty still-lives that made tangible the sorts of impulses we’d prefer to keep under wraps. A relish for naughty humanity gives her oeuvre its edge, and while the oils are spellbinding, Curtiss’ gouaches embrace a certain grit that truly can’t be matched for humor, style, or substance.
Slappey’s churning, creepy pieces were the subject of a solo exhibition at Chelsea’s Crush Curatorial back in November, and the gallery’s programmatic decision to pair her with legend Inka Essenhigh for an artist talk made all sorts of sense—Slappey forms environments from bodies and bodies from environments, never shirking away from the inherent theatricality of her chosen milieu. Slippery, mucosal fingers sneak forth into her picture planes, inviting the viewer to navigate habitats that beguile and repulse in equal turn. Based in Brooklyn, Slappey has made a significant mark since receiving her MFA from Hunter in 2016; her paintings are slated to appear at Sargent’s Daughters in New York and Maria Bernheim Gallery in Zurich this year, and her work has appeared in ArtMaze Magazine, Long Island Pulse, and Hamptons Art Hub.
Another recent MFA grad, Nestler has enjoyed emergent success since her matriculation from Brooklyn College in 2017. Her goofy, monolithic soft sculptures, costumes, and video pieces drive right to empathic heart of satire, lampooning the social rituals we rarely question with plenty of soul to spare. Whether in office footage of actors in silly suits or plush textile recreations of Grecian urns, Nestler harnesses and updates the Surrealist ethos in every last stitch. After a stellar 2018 solo debut at Ortega Y Gasset Projects in Brooklyn, her irreverent explorations in fitness found a home in the Project Room of Brooklyn’s BRIC House for multimedia installation Gymnasia, which closed on January 20th. Keep your eyes peeled for upcoming work by Nestler at Lobo Gallery in Brooklyn and the American Academy of Arts and Letters in Manhattan.
Belanger’s delightful, disquieting sculptures shift lived experience just a hair to the left, teasing possibility out from under the tyrannical dominion of truth. Funny, elegant, and phantasmagoric, her porcelain and stoneware dioramas feel like the leftovers of a fantasy tucked hastily back into some secret, imperceptible realm. Holding Pattern, a whimsical work-desk installation, is currently on view at New Museum’s Storefront Window Gallery, presenting a cheeky, clandestine oasis of vice to passersby. Belanger has shown her work at a number of high-profile spaces, including The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, CT and Derek Eller Gallery in New York.
Nguyen’s paintings pull no punches, using frank, directional color and frenzied brushstrokes to convey the nightmarish spectre of subjectivity under oppression. By remixing Vietnamese myths in a Western context, Nguyen examines the erasure of Asian-American experience in art imagery, creating arresting portrayals in a variety of medial iterations (her Fulbright Scholarship to Vietnam post-Yale MFA focused on lacquer techniques, for instance). Her work has been featured at the Rubin Museum in New York, the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts University in Vietnam, and The Mariboe Gallery in Highstown, NJ.
Julien is a 25-year old Bronx native whose expertly composed, intuitive paintings take on the affectual ramifications of environmental racism, hereditary trauma, and memory. She melts the personal and political into electric portraits that flash comic or poignant in a blink. Dream-like and caustic, Julien’s work uses the well-worn Surrealist beats to grapple with identity, forcing viewers to take stock of the way brown bodies have been depicted throughout art history. After earning her BFA from Rhode Island School of Design in 2016, Julien went on to attend residencies at The Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, the Vermont Studio Centers, and Ox-Bow School of Art in Saugatuck, MI, and has since had her work featured at Gavin Brown’s Hancock NY location, SMART OBJECTS in los Angeles, and Loyal Gallery in Stockholm, SE. She is currently an artist-in-residence at Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA.
New York-based Dominican artist Baez brings a magical flavor to complex cultural histories, imbuing her subjects with an edgeless, Afrofuturist potentiality. Swirling miasmas of thick hair, lush textiles, and floral motifs ensconce her protagonists; Baez provides new vocabularies for celebratory representation in liminal, iconographic space. Her blooming hymns to the diaspora have been presented in the Studio Museum in Harlem, the DePaul Art Museum in Chicago, IL, and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, MO. This year, her work will be the focus of solo exhibitions at the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam and the Mennello Museum of Art in Orlando, FL.
Any responsible list of new Surrealists has to include Sascha Braunig, the neon chanteuse who lives and works in Portland, ME. Each of her paintings is a masterclass in balance and precision, but the real draw of Braunig’s compositions crackles in the eerie gap between expectation and delivery. Her deft deployments of shadow build textural mazes in real time, proposing tactile stakes for the fusion of body and hardware she interlaces on canvas. There’s an ominous underbelly to her pieces, too, inspiring the kind of slow-absorbing aftershock native to a more expressionistic hand. Following her landmark solo show at MoMA PS1 in 2017, Braunig has shown in galleries in Norway, Belgium, and Switzerland, interrogating the construction of feminine selfhood throughout.