Surrealism Revisited

Marilyn Butler Fine Art Gallery

Turn your art clock back to the 1920s and 1930s. Yves Tanguy has turned furniture into abstract forms and scattered it over the landscape of time. Max Ernst's men have sprouted lion heads while Rene Magritte's tomatoes and apples have grown as big as rooms. Andre Breton has proclaimed "the omnipotence of the dream" in his Manifesto of Surrealism. Sigmund Freud is in his heyday. And, of course, the clock itself has grown limp and is draped over Salvador Dali's barren tree.

Walk into the Marilyn Butler Fine Art gallery and this is the world you enter. In Philip C. Curtis' oil paintings, the men are still wearing bowlers, stiff collars and even goatees, but the world is historical only in the sense of art history.

Curtis' is a universe of layers, reflections and inversions. In "Mother and Child," a serious woman in nineteenth-century dress sits on a chair in the middle of nowhere. In her lap she holds a small proscenium stage which reveals a girl sitting in an identical chair. The wonder of the painting is that the proscenium appears both to be sitting on the woman's lap and to be carved into her abdomen.

The girl seems both the mother's child and her childish or childhood self. The image suggests the whole gamut of Freudian thoughts on child-rearing and personal development, from the influence of childhood experiences on adult life to the ways in which each generation of child-rearing reflects the previous generation. The mother has determined the setting for the child's life, and the child is the mirror of the mother.

Curtis' outer world, like his inner world of the self, is not what it seems. "The Band Wagon," which is drawn by horses, bears the stalwart, uniformed band members across a desolate landscape. The center of the wagon is either an arched window or a mirror which reveals the desert horizon. Although the horizon is similar to the desert behind the wagon, it is not level with the real horizon line, which creates a sense of disjunction. The horizon has dropped, or the entire world has turned into desert, or the mirror is reflecting what is behind it.

In this image, as in many of Curtis' works, the light on the landscape suggests the sun setting over the Sonoran Desert. Yet his desert has been stripped of saguaros and ocotillos to become a conceptual one of scattered rocks and sand stretching to an infinite horizon, a stage for scenes that are not meant to be taken literally.

The dreamlike quality and strangeness of Curtis' world are compounded by the fact that these are not historical art works. Curtis, who was born in 1907, established this style only in 1957. (In the 1930s, Curtis founded what became the Phoenix Art Museum, and he has been a Scottsdale resident since 1947.) The current exhibition features works from 1962 to 1988, and they are all of a piece, the subtle refinements of a singular vision.

What does it mean for an artist to find at fifty a style and vision that was historically innovative in his late teens? Certainly, Curtis is an artist out of his time. Abstract expressionism, pop art, color-field painting, postmodernism, all have passed by, seemingly without influencing his work. (Curtis has been quoted as saying, "If I'd stayed in New York, I'd have been an Abstract Expressionist.") Ironically, postmodernism, in the form of neo-expressionism, neo-geo and neo-New York in general, has turned back to the movements of modernism. In not being sucked into the currents of art in his lifetime, has Curtis adhered to some more basic, unchanging truth? Has he simply by-passed half a century of formal experimentation that is now leading us back to the past?

With the end of the 1980s, the postmortems on postmodernism have begun. What comes next or what has already begun remains to be seen. What seems clear is that Curtis' work by virtue of its unhistorical nature will never have the broad influence of Magritte, Dali or other early practitioners of surrealism. Yet many of Curtis' images speak with moving subtlety and irony. So, too, the messages of surrealism that Curtis conveys--the importance of the dream, the subconscious and the arational--seem as relevant today as they did in Freud's time. An exhibition of 25 works by Philip C. Curtis continues at Marilyn Butler Fine Art through February 3. Located at 4160 North Craftsman Court in Scottsdale, the gallery is open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Thursday, 7 to 9 p.m.

New Mexico artist Luis Jimenez is nationally known for creating fiber glass sculpture which celebrates Hispanic culture and the working class. "Honky Tonk," his installation at the Lisa Sette Gallery, reveals the draftsman behind the sculptor.

The setting is a honky-tonk bar paneled in wood and adorned with hunters' relics. The regulars slouch by the pool table, sit at the bar, stand around or hug their sweethearts. The waitress serves beer, and a dog sleeps curled up on the floor.

The bar creates a backdrop for figures drawn with crayon on paper and mounted on foamcore. (The bar is also drawn in crayon, but it is mounted on plywood with neon additions.) The life-size cutout figures are scattered throughout the room as people would be, and Jimenez's scratchy lines render them with surprising realism. One woman is dancing: her hair has been thrown back, her belly and breasts bulge, her floral skirt swirls, even her necklace is caught midair. Her tongue also protrudes salaciously from her mouth.

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