“Seeking Surreal” at Davis Gallery

Each of the artworks in this group show finds some place where the fantastic makes contact with the everyday

Sam Anderson-Ramos

Austin Chronicle

July 8, 2016

Surrealism has been any number of things since its early 20th century birth. For me, its most provocative identity has been as a conduit for the human subconscious; as reflection – and conductor – of terrifying and inspiring imagery dredged from the unknown interiors of our own existences. This is an ideal. Most often, surreal is only used as a placeholder for strange. Whatever looks cool on a T-shirt.

In “Seeking Surreal,” some works are more or less what we might expect from a show of surrealist art, a notion informed by Dalí and Magritte postcards: bizarre scenes of the uncanny and the unexplained (though nothing terribly sexy here – too bad). Samuel Yeates’ Three Horses and a Beachball, for instance, is a portrait of an unlikely quartet, but not in any earth-shattering way. In fact, the scene is perfectly possible. Simply toss a beach ball at some horses and take a picture. Instant surreal.

Gladys Poorte’s work is more complicated. She has multiple paintings here, all of which seem to be grappling with the landscape of an imagined place populated with abstract architecture. It looks to me like a city, but I don’t see any residents, only serene seascapes, swings hanging from nowhere, giant coffee saucers – that’s what they look like! – and, I don’t know, a massive toilet paper roll. If I sound flip, it’s because Poorte’s cryptic places make me furrow my brow. This is a good thing. I need to figure them out, though I know I never will. This fits snugly with my experience of the surrealist greats. While I sense Poorte’s images may be lacking some fundamental innovation essential to her own wisdom, I don’t know what that thing is, and I guess I’m okay with that for now.

Other pieces, such as William Wahlgren’s Alien Landscape XI, seem further afield, less recognizably surreal. Even so, his crimson stormscapes exude the violence of a nightmare and the calm of a hallucination one has accepted they will not leave. They are captivating, baneful, like Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. Another series of landscapes, by Chris De Dier, is more earthly. His billowing, cream-colored skies over monotone horizons remind me less of things I’ve unwittingly forged from sleep or stupor than of images I’ve conjured purposefully.

Since I was a child, and always on road trips, I have looked out the car window, past the moving highway, to the ever-stretching fields and distant hills. I have envisioned myself running full tilt through them and away from my reality, as if I could run forever away from fear and madness into a peace I held faith would be there for me. Or, if you want, headlong into a madness that might cradle me. De Dier’s were the landscapes I ran to. They are foreboding, infinite, and deathless. Some might be put off by this. I am comforted. Either way, it is De Dier’s reverence for the complexity of the skies that makes it possible to see so much in paintings that, on their face, are very simple.

I can’t say with any authority what makes an artwork, a scene, or an event surreal. It’s possible that surreal is a feeling, a sense, like déjà vu, that something fantastic has made contact with the everyday. Each of the works in “Seeking Surreal” manages this, at least to some extent. Some only graze the dreamworks we hold dear. Others invent them so well we may wonder if we’ve seen them before, in our past, perhaps, or in our dreams.