Pop surrealism consists of art that is frequently loved but rarely appreciated. The movement takes pop art detritus and combines it with surrealist principles for work that includes, but is not limited to, comic books, lowrider decals, tattoos and anything else normally considered lowbrow. In short, it’s stuff that actual people actually like—and there’s nothing to do but like at Pop Surrealism, an exhibition of work by three New Mexico artists.
Dennis Larkins’ work rounds the circumference of the Visual Arts Gallery’s lofty space. His 3-D acrylic, comic-like reliefs send up numerous historical and cultural markers of ’50s modernity: General Electric kitchen
appliances, the Kool-Aid Man, nuclear warfare, aliens.
In “Cosmic Kitchen,” multiples of the same yellow-dress-clad woman do all sorts of ’50s-approved lady chores (mostly to do with food and, in one corner of the piece, a phone message). Seen from above, these automatons happily move about their activities as a swirling galaxy nibbles at their feet and atomic symbols prance at their fingertips. “The Sweet Smell of Success” portrays equally blithe scientists as they peek into giant View-Masters while lightning attacks the background. A man and woman’s feet flirt in the foreground with the A-bomb on the horizon in “Watch Your Step.”
These humorous, though eerie, Twilight Zone-esque paintings set the stage for the exhibition’s other two artists, Max Lehman and Tim Prythero.
If anything were to live in Larkins’ ridiculous world of impending doom, it would probably be Lehman’s loony, indomitable cartoon characters. His low-fired earthenware figures sport cloying expressions; their adorable doe eyes brim with the happy insanity of cockroaches after the apocalypse. They belong trapped amid the chaos of consumerism and American military might of the ’50s—or any other time period in which reason is compromised (ahem).
Lehman is a finalist in the Juxtapoz—a magazine that has typified the pop surrealist movement—competition to re-render Julius the Monkey for the ubiquitous Paul Frank product line. In “Dia de Julius,” Lehman depicts the iconic monkey in a pastel palette and worshipped like a giant Aztec god.
Mixed among Lehman’s work in the center of the gallery, Prythero’s pieces provide a refreshing stroke of realism (though still kitsch) amid the whacky world of the first two artists.
His phenomenally detailed dioramas are the lived-in remnants of post-World War II mass production and advertising glut. His miniature tableaux of the things people in the ’50s owned and the containers—cars, diners, mini-marts—that held them are exact down to the blue jay eggs in scraggly nests, the “Win with Ike” bumper sticker on a wood-paneled station wagon and the broken beer-bottle glass on the sandy desert floor. Realistic logos pawn off soda and Mobilgas, while scripted slogans sell diner specials and more ice (“Is one bag enough?”).
But they’re not works of judgment.
“The Last Trailer” puts forth all the clutter that mass production, plastics and TV commercials created, and somehow it doesn’t give off a message about American tastelessness, nor does it pander to the fears many Americans surely had at the time. Strewn about the piece are objects and ideas that have made up the American dream: swamp coolers, tires and antennae, signifying comfort, mobility and connectivity, respectively.
Prythero’s places are not abandoned, but lived in. The stuff is not discarded, but used and loved. Like the art that is included in pop surrealism, these objects of life are raised to objets d’art in the minds of those who appreciate them. And there’s much to appreciate.