All publicity concerning The Conjured Life: The Legacy of Surrealism at Stanford University’s Cantor Art Center features The Courtship (1949) by Gertrude Abercrombie, one of six artists from the Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison parasurrealist group of the ’40s. I saw this painting once in LACMA’s all-women show of Surrealists, In Wonderland (2012), and looked forward to our reunion some five years and 361 miles hence. The inclusion of a figure such as Abercrombie suggested a comprehensive, scholarly affair, so imagine my chagrin on viewing The Conjured Life only to find no Courtship. True, the show features Homage to Alfred Rethal (1987) by John Wilde, another of the aforementioned parasurrealists, and that painting’s a beaut—akin to The Courtship itself—with a red-robed skeleton sawing on a bone violin while a masked couple dances in the background. But neither Homage’s inclusion nor the confirmation I’ve received from the Cantor Art Center of The Courtship’s absence addresses the question of why the painting is in the show’s advertising.
Such cavalier unconcern is indicative of The Conjured Life, a restaging of an earlier show at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. The exhibition, which posits the influence of surrealism on a disparate miscellany of contemporary works, almost completely fails in its promised “legacy.” I can accept Francesca Woodman with her disquieting photographs, or Jess, with his collages that begin where Ernst’s end, as inheritors of Surrealism. And Willie Cole, with a pair of 1992 assemblages made from old electric irons, plausibly makes the grade. But most of the more contemporary works indicate little genuine engagement with Surrealism’s theoretical underpinnings or even more generalized implications of Surrealist techniques or innovations. The worst offenders here—Buzz Spector’s Mallarme [sic] (1987–88), a curio cabinet with lines by its titular poet painted in gold leaf on the glass, or David Noonan’s untitled 2012 work, a monumental silkscreen on linen photo collage of a couple of goofy-looking dudes—smack of a fetishized craftsmanship utterly alien to Surrealism’s aspiration to pierce the boundary between art and life. Donald Roller Wilson’s use of Old Masterly oil technique in The Transformation of Helen’s Brother Larry (1980) achieves something of Dali’s grotesquery but none of his paranoid psychological depth or genius for trompe l’oeil; it’s just a fat kid in a monster mask and skirt. This is “surrealist” only if you take that as a synonym for “weird.”