THE SURREALIST IMPULSE
CORINNE WASMUHT Alnitak

PETZEL GALLERY | OCTOBER 30 – DECEMBER 19, 2015

Corinne Wasmuht is a contemporary surrealist, and her visions are fraught with the same edgy aesthetic of what we are just-uncomfortable-enough-with, in terms of distortions of our reality—similar to Dalí, Magritte, or even Bosch. A friend of mine wrote his senior thesis in college on the imagery of alien sightings through history. He pointed out to me that, up until the 19th century, most visitors to our planet had wings and a religious connotation. With the advent of rockets, the aliens suddenly started arriving on rockets, then jet engines, then anti-gravitational devices, inevitably paralleling earthbound technologies. Similarly, our own innate visions of the weird, the otherworldly, and the surreal, modulate according to which technological innovations we as a culture are exposed to.

Corinne Wasmuht, Pehoé P, 2015. Oil on aluminum, 38.58 × 44.09 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Petzel, New York.

Some art movements seem to be singular temporal occurrences: Cubism, for instance, happened and is done with. Other movements may seem to have been codified by a particular set of artists, but the impulse behind the movement still remains, and is driven by a seemingly inherent human creative desire. These ongoing movements, in this case surrealism, are continually renewed by revived factors in culture that are never static: technology and how it modulates our ways of seeing and generates new signs and signifiers. Corinne Wasmuht’s panel paintings traffic in this contemporary take on surrealism—her imagery invokes dreams, half-seen/half-imagined visions, and a good dose of ubiquitous technology gone awry. For example, two massive panel paintings, Oberbaum (2015) and Pehoé Towers (2013), are extraordinary panoramic vistas of rainbow dystopias, a seemingly Internet-based world set on an endless Groundhog Day loop.

The key to surrealism is a base modicum of recognizability and good technique. Wasmuht draws much of her inspiration from images generated on a computer screen and from the artist’s archive of photographs of places most of us instantly recognize, such as malls and airports, which are then modified, collaged, and overlaid one on top of each other. Viewers now are familiar with the aesthetic of pixelation and its attendant anomalies of frozen screens and corrupted data files, which result in bizarre mishaps of color and form. This familiar signifier of the not-quite-right and accidental has been used to great effect by the painter in her meticulously rendered oil-on-wood paintings.

The exhibition is divided into two rooms, and there is a gradual transition of subject matter between the two. The room the viewer initially enters is filled with smaller works (smaller comparatively: Wasmuht’s two large works are so big that these pieces seem like studies). The smaller works are detail-oriented: the artist collects source material from magazines, among other places, and these paintings focus solely on the imagery rather than its repetition or degeneration. Of the five paintings, three seem almost accidentally to end up being portraits insofar that we can detect a distinct visage and a direct emotional engagement that is not present in the other paintings. Pehoé P (2015) features the bleached face of a young boy, almost reminiscent of the monochromatic marble faces of Michelangelo’s slaves, gazing over his shoulder at us, while his background crumbles away. Alnilam (2015) captures the layer-upon-layer effect of wheat-paste posters torn away from a billboard, leaving a solitary woman staring out from the shreds of color that make up the majority of the painting. 

Placed on catty-corner walls, Oberbaum and Pehoé Towers expand on Wasmuht’s processing of imagery and individual figures and environments become secondary to the interactions of the color and patterns of the distortion. Oberbaum literally bursts out from a nexus point on the left half of the panel. This point imitates a vanishing point, but again, this is a surreal painting: the lines don’t necessarily emanate from the point; instead it seems the origin of the distortion—sort of a singularity in space. Pehoé Towers is organized around concentric ripple-like bands of color, while ghost figures and snippets of architecture fall in and around the circles of what appear to be pure energy. A hallucinogenic and ecstatic emotion is evoked in this work, but the kicker is that it seems to be an iteration of a malfunction of the vertical hold on an old vacuum-tube TV: the appearance of the divine in the smallest and most anachronistic things.

For contemporaneous viewers of Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory (1931), melted watches were strange, but not incomprehensible, and the mottled stringy flesh of the figures in Ernst’s The Antipope (1941–42) was disturbing and nightmarish, but not revolting. Similarly, the visceral effect of Wasmuht’s paintings is unsettling but not altogether unfamiliar. In fact, just as alien sightings tend to be about a very recognizable need for the miraculous, tarted up in the enigmatic garb of otherness, it’s actually a bit comforting.

Contributor

William Corwin

WILLIAM CORWIN is a sculptor and curator based in New York City. His work has been reviewed in the Brooklyn Rail, ARTnews, Sculpture Magazine, Artcritical, and Art Monthly. In 2016, he organized I Cyborg at the Gazelli Art House in London. He currently teaches with the Meet the Met program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and hosts a program on Clocktower Radio.

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