The thinking ass

“Accommodations of Desire” at the Portland Museum of Art
By CHRIS THOMPSON  |  January 25, 2006

SERVING REVOLUTION Surrealism challenges reality.I believe the moment is at hand when, by a paranoiac and active advance of the mind, it will be possible ... to systematize confusion and thus to help to discredit completely the world of reality.

Before his imagery got captured and turned into poster art backdrops for dorm-room bong-hits, Salvador Dalí imagined it in service of a revolution in consciousness.

“Accommodations of Desire: Surrealist Works on Paper Collected by Julien Levy,” at the Portland Museum of Art through this spring, traces the stages and offshoots of this revolution along the axis established by one crucial figure in its history and its dissemination — collector and dealer Julien Levy, a passionate advocate, even missionary, for Surrealist art and the life that nourished it. A captivating collection of work by artists ranging from those whose place in the history books (not to say the head shops) is established to those who have yet to be canonized, the show, sponsored in part by the Portland Phoenix, provides a refreshingly complex picture of the Surrealist orbit.

Like Leon Kelly (a discovery for this author), who Levy promoted to his utmost but who never crossed the threshold into history. Yet his strange cinematic Krazy-Kat inspired imagery holds up with a contemporaneity that precious few other Surrealist works manage. In his Discovery of the Trunk of Raphael Sanzio (1944), a procession of nude women makes its way in the direction of a buried but apparently empty trunk bearing the initials of the great Renaissance genius, their anti-gravity physiques aberrant at mid-century but prescient in terms of their normalcy in relation to today’s silicon builds.

These new and menacing images will act skillfully and corrosively, with the clarity of daily physical appearances...

Referring to Luis Buñuel’s classic film Un Chien Andalou, one of two of his works that Dalí collaborated on — the one with the infamous scene of the eyeball carved open by a razorblade, a gesture that has come to symbolize liberation from the shackles of normalizing sense perception and an opening into a purer mode of sight — these words from his 1930 text “The Stinking Ass” articulate the goals of the Surrealist revolution.

It has to be said once and for all to art critics, artists, &c., that they need expect nothing from the new surrealist images but disappointment, distaste and repulsion... the new images will come to follow the free bent of desire at the same time as they are vigorously repressed.

A year before “The Stinking Ass,” in 1929, the year that he painted The Great Masturbator, he made contact with the Surrealists and was given a warm welcome by André Breton. Five years prior, Breton had published his “Manifesto of Surrealism” in which he outlined Freud’s argument that the psyche is in perpetual turmoil between the civilizing pressures borne by the conscious mind and the irrational and libidinal drives of the id—Freud’s “seething cauldron.” The Surrealists worked up a range of ways to access and free the unconscious from the chokehold of bourgeois consciousness: dream imagery and analysis, free association and automatic writing, hypnosis and word games, drug use and collaborative art-making practices, as well as a promising practice of collective walking through the countryside that appears to have only been tried out once.

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