Art historians will tell you that surrealism emerged in early 20th-century Europe. With respect to the artistic and cultural movement this is certainly accurate, but the basic surrealist impulse knows no geographic or temporal limitation. For as Sigmund Freud—the patron psychologist of surrealism—showed, irrationality is a powerful and indelible force in human nature.
So it should come as no surprise that, though artistic movements come and go, the world is no less surreal these days than back when Salvador Dalí was liquefying clocks. He may evoke more profane adjectives, but isn’t Donald Trump staggeringly surreal?
Then again, perhaps we all are. According to Fred Stonehouse, assistant professor of art at UW-Madison and eminent neo-surrealist painter, “Everyone is a secret surrealist in their dreams.” The creative process that begins during Stonehouse’s REM cycle has won him international renown and a place in art collections as close as Madison and as unexpected as Madonna’s.
“Fred Stonehouse: The Promise of Distant Things,” from Sept. 26-Jan. 17 at the Museum of Wisconsin Art, juxtaposes work dating back to 1992 with new, never-displayed pieces. The exhibition culminates in an enormous pastiche of drawings and cutouts that Stonehouse describes as an echo of his studio space.
Stonehouse does not reject the label “neo-surrealist,” yet suggests “fabulist” may be more accurate. “A lot of artists create their own personal enchanted world,” he notes, “but they’re not necessarily part of a unified group.” The early surrealists have marked his work but we shouldn’t overlook the Midwestern fabulist tradition of artists such as Gertrude Abercrombie, John Wilde, Karl Priebe, H.C. Westermann and the Chicago imagists.
The other grist for Stonehouse’s oneiric mill comes from diverse sources. “Fred’s brain is like a big sponge wrapped in sticky fly paper,” says MOWA’s Director of Collections and Exhibitions Graeme Reid in his light Scottish accent. “So many influences come together in his work. Renaissance painting, [especially early Renaissance northern Italian painters, specifies Stonehouse], contemporary painters like Leon Golub and Anselm Kiefer, magic realist writers such as Gabriel García Márquez, Day of the Dead imagery, movie posters from Ghana, West African barber shop signs…”
All these images and aesthetics are then filtered through the dream mechanisms “condensation” and “displacement,” to borrow Freud’s terminology. Or in Stonehouse’s terminology, “The narratives in my painting operate on dream logic. Have you ever described a dream to someone and said something like, ‘In my dream, we were in my house, but it wasn’t my house, but it was, and you were there, but you were someone else’? That’s dream logic: Things can have multiple identities and signify the unseen.”
If it’s hard to pin down the precise meaning of a Stonehouse canvas, it is a fertile ambiguity that calls out to be interpreted by the viewer’s own dream-self. “I work out a lot of personal issues in my work, but I don’t think it’s so specific to me that it’s like navel-gazing—I want the work to remain open-ended enough that everyone can relate to it.”
“Fred Stonehouse: The Promise of Distant Things” features an opening reception (1-4 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 26) with Stonehouse temporary tattoos, live music and refreshments. Several of his former students will also be displayed in MOWA’s concurrent exhibition, “Out of Madison.” At 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 1, Stonehouse will discuss his work and share stories from his life during a meet-the-artist event. MOWA is publishing a full-color catalogue with many works from the exhibition as well as an essay by the Portrait Society Gallery’s Director Debra Brehmer, which Graeme Reid describes as the most comprehensive piece on Stonehouse yet. The catalogue will be available as a free download through wisconsinart.org or may be purchased in print at the MOWA Shop.
To read the article by Tyler Friedman in its original format, click HERE.