MMoCA de­picts ‘Cu­ri­ous Worlds’ of Ellen Lanyon

Wisconsin Gazette - - Flash Forward: A Look Ahead To 2016 - By Michael Muck­ian Con­tribut­ing writer

The realm of sur­re­al­ism isn’t owned by men like Sal­vador Dalí, René Magritte or Mar­cel Duchamp. Con­sider Méret Op­pen­heim, fa­mous for her 1936 work “Break­fast in Fur” in which she cov­ered a cup, saucer and spoon with fur from Chi­nese gazelle. Or Frida Kahlo, the 20th-cen­tury Mex­i­can painter who al­ways de­nied any sur­re­al­ist con­nec­tion but nonethe­less draws on some of the same ideas in her work.

More timely to con­sider is the work of Ellen Lanyon, a lu­mi­nary of the Chicago School who helped in­tro­duce the phrase “magic re­al­ism” into the pub­lic realm. Start­ing this month, art fans will have a chance to ex­am­ine 14 of Lanyon’s paint­ings and prints in Cu­ri­ous Worlds: The Art of Ellen Lanyon, on dis­play through April 17 at the Madi­son Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art.

Lanyon’s highly ex­pres­sive style helped push the dream­scapes of Sal­vador Dalí, Joan Miró and even Pablo Pi­casso into kinder, gen­tler and, ul­ti­mately, more ac­ces­si­ble im­agery, help­ing to cre­ate a new art genre in the process.

The Chicago School, of which Lanyon was part, was known for its fig­u­ra­tive and ac­ces­si­ble style, and its artists oc­ca­sion­ally threaded their im­agery with fan­tas­tic themes, ac­cord­ing to Richard Ax­som, se­nior curator for MMOCA. Lanyon picked up that thread in 1969, when her for­mer pop-art ap­proach to peo­ple, land­scapes and sports fig­ures be­gan tak­ing on a more imag­i­na­tive bent. Cu­ri­ous Worlds fo­cuses on work done be­tween the years 1969 and 1984, which the artist called her “magic” pe­riod.

“Ellen Lanyon is the most highly ac­knowl­edged fe­male magic re­al­ist and that’s a ti­tle I think she de­serves,” Ax­som says. “I think view­ers will re­ally en­joy the show.”

The dif­fer­ences be­tween Lanyon’s form of magic re­al­ism and more clas­sic sur­re­al­ism are sub­tle as well as sub­stan­tive. Sur­re­al­ism took shape be­tween WWI and WWII and was pri­mar­ily a Euro­pean art move­ment dom­i­nated by men, which Ax­som says ac­counts for the lack of more fa­mil­iar fe­male sur­re­al­ists.

“Sur­re­al­ism’s pri­mary aim was to make vis­i­ble the un­con­scious through what Dalí called ‘pic­ture post­cards of dreams,’ with im­agery that tended to­ward edgy, omi­nous hal­lu­ci­na­tion,” says Ax­som, who taught art his­tory at the Univer­sity of Michi­gan for 30 years.

“Lanyon’s magic re­al­ism tends to be much softer, lyri­cal and sub­tle with a fem­i­nine sen­si­bil­ity to the work,” Ax­som adds. “It’s some­thing that’s gen­er­ous, not cyn­i­cal, with an ap­par­ent con­cern for the en­vi­ron­ment and a strong fem­i­nist streak that is both ma­ter­nal and nur­tur­ing.”

Lanyon’s style shift in 1969 led her to draw on cu­rios and col­lecta­bles from her fam­ily’s at­tic that had spe­cial mean­ing for her. She be­gan com­bin­ing these items with nat­u­ral im­ages of plants and an­i­mals in un­usual ways in her paint­ings, the curator ex­plains.

“Birds, am­phib­ians, lizards, bun­nies and mice were mixed up in un­ex­pected com­bi­na­tions,” Ax­som ex­plains. “Sur­re­al­ists would say that the ap­proach puts your mind in play through a wide range of free as­so­ci­a­tions.”

Lanyon’s in­ter­est in the nat­u­ral as­pects of magic re­al­ism were fur­ther height­ened in 1976 when the U.S. De­part­ment of the In­te­rior com­mis­sioned the artist to do a paint­ing called “Amer­ica ‘76” that would tour the coun­try in sup­port of the U.S. bi­cen­ten­nial cel­e­bra­tion. Lanyon was sent to the Florida Ever­glades to cap­ture the en­vi­ron­ment and wildlife. Her large two-panel can­vas didn’t quite de­liver the mes­sage the gov­ern­ment was seek­ing.

“Her feel­ing was that what she was see­ing in Florida was en­dan­gered,” Ax­som says. “The Ever­glades were al­ready threat­ened and you can see that cap­tured in her work.”

Lanyon’s work fol­low­ing the Florida trip be­gan to dwell even more heav­ily on the fragility of na­ture and the in­ter­con­nect­ed­ness of liv­ing things, the curator says. Two of the show’s black-and-white lith­o­graphs, “Black Egret” and “Ea­gle Beak,” both cre­ated in 1985, show the ma­jes­tic birds in habi­tats al­most too pris­tine to be real. The swirl of ac­tiv­ity pic­tured in the works re­flects the artist’s love of na­ture and memo­ri­al­izes scenes she may al­ready be too late to save.

The show also fea­tures a large, four­panel work called “Chro­mos: Win­ter I, Au­tumn II, Spring III, Sum­mer IV” (1982– 83) that Ax­som says serves as an al­le­gor­i­cal ap­proach to life’s cycli­cal na­ture and em­bod­ies many of the tromp-l’oeil tech­niques as­so­ci­ated with magic re­al­ism. Lanyon de­parts from the fa­mil­iar ap­proach, shuf­fling the sea­sons out of or­der in her pre­sen­ta­tion to ac­cen­tu­ate com­mon­al­ity of col­ors, and an­i­mals and birds play ma­jor roles in all four pan­els.

These and other works in the ex­hibit com­bine to give view­ers greater in­sight into Lanyon’s style, the Chicago School and its con­tri­bu­tions to 20th-cen­tury art, Ax­som says.

“One Chicago critic in the 1960s re­ferred to Lanyon’s work as that of ‘a Corn­belt sur­re­al­ist,’” Ax­som says. “I think that’s called damn­ing with faint praise, but I love that de­scrip­tion.”


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