Inspired by the work of early 20th-century surrealists, the summer showings at the Palo Alto Art Center offer an extraordinary mix of the unexpected in contemporary sculpture, drawings and juxtaposed images.
Three related exhibitions, "Secret Drawings," "Dream Sequences" and "Surreal Reinventions," run through Sept. 4. All "show how surrealism has filtered into our everyday thinking," influencing contemporary artists and such fields as digital photography, curator Signe Mayfield said during a presentation last week to the museum's docents.
"Secret Drawings" is inspired by a game that Mayfield plays with her grandson, an adaptation of the parlor game Consequences, in which a paper is folded into segments obscured from one another. On the top segment, the first person begins the drawing, with perhaps a head, folds it over and draws a connection on the second segment, so that the second player can continue the drawing, perhaps adding a torso.
In that vein, the surrealists developed a collective drawing technique called Le Cadavre Exquis or "The Exquisite Corpse." The goal was to free the creative spirit through collaborative art by connecting drawings, with each subsequent artist unaware of the work on the preceding fold.
In an experiment, Mayfield and co-curator Andrea Antonaccio selected 52 artists, many from the Bay Area, pairing each with a secret collaborator. Each was given a sheet of paper with a line or a squiggle at one end that would connect their work to that of their partner. Participants were also given titles that were often from the works of surrealist artists such as Man Ray and Magritte.
We chose "titles that could be very open-ended," Mayfield said. "If the artists did research, that had something to bounce off," but they weren't required to.
The title "Dog Show," for example, did not command research. In the canine collaboration of artists Lisa Kokin and Paul Mullins, the work of the secret partners connected easily with a penciled leash. Others were less closely aligned.
Among the most intriguing pairs were the playful "Coffee with Meret Oppenheim" drawings by Bill Abright and Lucy Gaylord-Lindholm, who said they found it challenging to work outside their usual media. (Abright is a ceramist who teaches at the College of Marin; Gaylord-Lindholm is a Palo Alto painter.) At last Friday's preview reception, each saw their partner's work for the first time.
Both had researched Oppenheim, an artist and a muse of Man Ray. Oppenheim had once covered a teacup, saucer and spoon with the fur of a Chinese gazelle after being inspired by a conversation with Pablo Picasso. Man Ray photographed the fur-covered setting.
However, the two contemporary artists took their research in different directions. Taking his cue from Oppenheim and Man Ray, Abright drew a fur-covered cup filled with images from Man Ray's photographs, including the famous nude of Oppenheim with a printing press.
Gaylord-Lindholm, though, focused on the figure of Oppenheim, somebody she said she would like to have coffee with. Mixing historical periods, she dressed her in an Elizabethan robe and ruff, placing an old-fashioned telephone receiver across her eyes and a round dial on her bodice. "She was provocative," said Gaylord-Lindholm, who elicits provocative reactions in her own work.
So does Abright. "What's going on?" art dialogue docent Peggy Stauffer said at the reception, examining a snake head that served as a teacup handle.
It "just popped out," in the process of creation, Abright admitted.
At the other end of the gallery, Magritte's "False Mirror" had inspired a number of works. Jamie Cortez, for instance, combined a graphite hill with a wolf, a silvery "mirror" from the packing of iPod headphones, and a wooden structure that looks like a vertical boat. At first, he said, the assignment was "overwhelming, because you could take it anywhere. But once you enjoy taking it anywhere, it's fun. It broke me out of my linear tendencies."
Other artists took their cues from Magritte. Jamie Brunson created a Buddhist meditation piece, or thangka, with an eye in the center of a mandala collage made from maps. In a similar vein, Walter Robinson's "False Mirror" replaces Magritte's eye with a copyright symbol against a cloud-filled sky, surrounded by a tantric diagram.
Art-center visitors can also create their own collaborative works through a hands-on project titled "The Throw of the Dice." Colored pencils and titles are provided to trigger the imagination.
In another part of the museum, the exhibition "Dream Sequences" is a collection of six ceramic sculptures artfully arranged by designer Ted Cohen. The sculptures were placed in clear cubes, five of them set in a room with dark walls. Three of the works — by Beverly Mayeri, Lydia Buzio and Jason Walker — are on loan from Dorothy and George Saxe of Menlo Park, who have a gallery devoted to their collection at San Francisco's de Young Museum.
In a phone interview, Dorothy Saxe said some works of art seem to cry out, "Take me home with you." Among those pieces in the current show are Mayeri's "Emerging," a female torso with extended arms.
"You can admire a lot of artists' work, (but finding) the right one for you" is more difficult, Saxe said. "I think the face is beautiful. I like her outstretched arms." She added that it was a work "I really wanted to live with."
At the reception, Mayeri, a Mill Valley sculptor, said "Emerging" presented myriad challenges. While the work was in progress, she had to support the arms with a wooden armature. Then came the challenges of loading it into the kiln.
"If I can get through all of that, works can last 30,000 years — not that I'm thinking that far ahead," she said.
Looking at her other work on display, "The Garden," a figure whose torso is delicately flocked with greenery, people and animals, Mayeri said she drew her inspiration from her "own backyard," as well as from "thinking about people ... who I nurture and who nurture me."
She said she particularly loves "the ability to use surface for relief work and designs. Through "color and form, I take care of all my obsessive needs in these pieces, which take me away from the ordinary aspects of life. It slows me down into a more contemplative state of surprise and fun."
Meanwhile, the "Surreal Reinventions" exhibit features whimsical works by Ruth Marten and John Hundt that borrow from historical etchings, prints and periodicals.
In "Canapes," New Yorker Marten, formerly an underground tattoo artist, transforms an old natural-history etching of shrews into unexpected edibles, garnishing the animals with vegetables, sauces, skewers and toothpicks. In an altered intaglio, she takes a 19th-century image of women in elaborate dresses, replacing their faces with trumpet vine flowers topped by anthers made of jewels.
At the reception, Hundt's comments complemented the outrageousness of his collages. "I use a lot of stockings and garter belts in my work," he said, noting that he finds images from old periodicals in the backrooms of Tenderloin porno shops, where he discovers "chunky legs" and high-heeled shoes favored by fetishists. A self-described packrat, he attends yard sales, snaps up musty books and periodicals from yard sales and holds onto them for years, "much to the chagrin of my wife," who evicted his studio operation from their home.
Hundt's "High Priestess," a totem of juxtaposed images, features the aforementioned stockings, with feathers trimming a torso made from a string instrument. Oversized red lips and a tipped pail as a hat complete the picture.
"Veiled Figure" features an octopus image Hundt had been hanging onto for years, until he found the right face to place in the center. He superimposed the combined images on a handwritten letter, its ink faded to brown. As the letter is in an unfamiliar Germanic language, he has no idea what it says. But it's the surreal juxtaposition — painstakingly pieced and pasted — that forms art.
Commenting on the exhibits, docent Nancy Kiely said, "It's probably the most ingenious artistry I've ever seen here."
Loren Saxe voiced similar observations. "Signe and her team have put together a wonderful summer exhibition of creative drawings, collages and ceramic pieces," he said. "Everything is food for thought. But that's what art does."
What: The Palo Alto Art Center's three summer exhibitions reflect the influence of surrealism on contemporary artists.
Where: Palo Alto Art Center, 1313 Newell Road
When: Through Sept. 4, open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 7 to 9 p.m. Thursdays, 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays.
Cost: Free. Adult docent tours, also free, are held 2 p.m. Saturdays, except on holiday weekends.
Info: Go to http://www.cityofpaloalto.org/artcenter or call 650-329-2366.