Deep Dive: 6 Contemporary Surrealists Showing at Superfine! DC
We’ve noticed a trend in the art world recently. Some of our favorite artists are painting and collaging worlds that look like ours, but something’s a little bit…off. Maybe the sky is too fluorescent to be real, or the body parts are rearranged strangely. These parallel universes are tantalizing. They remind us of Salvador Dali’s surrealist masterpieces while also offering something uncannily ‘now.’ Hooked, we decided to dive deeper into contemporary surrealism and its present-day masters.
What defines surrealism today? Is it governed by the same motivations as it was one hundred years ago? Do artists still give themselves over to their subconscious minds? Are they still responding to contemporary conditions in the art world and beyond? We interviewed six contemporary surrealists from Superfine! DC to find out.
Fei Alexeli • Thessaloniki, Greece
Fei Alexeli continues the tradition of digging in her subconscious for themes & imagery. In her digital collages, the artist fuses iconography from concepts as disparate as Americana, outer space, the tropical rainforest & Hollywood films. She describes these influences as “free-associations,” that percolate in her mind. “I start with an idea, sometimes just a color palette or even just a feeling,” Alexeli explains. But as she builds each collage the idea changes, distorted by shifts in her subconscious vision. “The result is always different than what I imagined,” she adds.
Alexeli’s work may draw from a variety of subject matter, but it is incredibly cohesive visually. Part of this is a byproduct of the artist’s fascination with pink and blue, colors that abound in her collages. “Pink and blue were, and in some parts of the world still are, highly associated with genre,” the artist explains. The colors have been polarized by society. Pink has been designated THE color of saccharine femininity, its touch innocent or provocative “depending on the context,” according to Alexeli. Blue, on the other hand, has been rid of its softness, replaced by connotations with, well, business casual.
Amidst Alexeli’s surreal collages, these colors take on new meaning. In Lac Rose, bubblegum pink feels soothing. It colors the ocean and skims the tops of craters like a martini filled to the brim. Associated with nature, the color becomes almost bucolic.
Lac Rose also reveals another aspect of Alexeli’s motivations as a contemporary surrealist: knowledge of the infinite universe. In this collage, a figure performs a back handspring that sends her floating over this rosy tableau. The move is effortless and gravity-defying. Her joy can be felt through the ecstatic reach of her hands, plunging backwards into nothing and everything.
“When I look in the sky and try to imagine the vastness of the universe…the endless possibilities of things that might exist, I realize we are ignorant and only here for the short term,” Alexeli says. This gives her a sense of relief. “Nothing is really important,” she adds. “We are simply here to exist and enjoy.” She hopes her work will bring viewers to the same conclusion, the same place of peace and contentment with the universe.
Brianne Lanigan • Arlington, VA
Visually compatible with Alexeli is the artist Brianne Lanigan, whose work also features imagery from outer space. Lanigan, whose collages are hand-cut rather than digital, views space as the intersection of escapism and reality. “I enjoy creating unexplored worlds and galaxies where the impossible is possible,” the artist explains. For Lanigan, surrealism is the notion that something strange is not entirely out of question.
Perhaps the sheer possibility of Lanigan’s work comes from the intimate quality of the images. For every collage she pulls from an archive of over a thousand images. These are figures and shapes that Lanigan has lived with, mulled over, turned sideways, and cut in half—over and over again. Their intimacy is tangible.
Coming At You Like A Dark Horse situates a woman in a red dress on a subway platform—perhaps Chambers Street—which lends the work both relatability and the suggestion of reality. Yet the platform has been replaced by a series of flat, broken stones not unlike those found near a stream. Three construction signs point to the viewer’s right, as if there is a portal to another world at the end of the Chambers Street station. In the no-man’s land between this world and the next, the two start to converge. Platform and stone, ceiling and stars, subway rats and forest foxes…
The subject in her red sheath is gloriously authoritative despite the ambiguity of place. “The women in my art are inspired by the strong, “tough as nails” women in my family,” Lanigan says. The figure’s confident expression grounds the work. The world around her may be in flux, but she remains in charge.
ALIGUORI • Fort Lauderdale, FL
Nino Liguori, who signs his work Aliguori Art, is taking contemporary surrealism to the next level technically by incorporating 3D technology into his work. 3D tools individualize the viewing experience for each viewer, as only one can wear the 3D glasses at a time. “For one brief moment they are the only ones who can see the work,” Nino explains.
Isolated from the sights of the outside world, the viewer is trapped in an augmented reality where surreal objects are given three-dimensional properties. Liguori’s new methodology is so significant because it grabs hold of contemporary surrealist landscapes and makes them feel real.
Liguori is showing Don’t Lose the Forrest For the Tree at Superfine! DC with 3D glasses. Hovering in real space, the barren wasteland of tree stumps will feel that much more ominous. The children, floating in their surreal treehouse, will seem all the more disconnected from the world around them. Destruction encroaches on their backyard, breaking through their fence, but they still come cheerfully to dinner when called.
Liguori also visualizes mathematic and scientific concepts, which register as surreal to those who draw a distinct line between the left and right halves of the brain. These paintings suggest an interdisciplinary interpretation of mathematics. “Blind people understand geometric spatial relationships more than the sighted, though we may think of that branch of math as strictly visual,” he explains.
The painting Phenomenal Sensation confronts this misconception. In this humorous work, Liguori situates a blind man in front of a geometric diagram. His walking stick forms one side of a triangle, its angle to the ground indicated by a small curve. In this universe, he not only excels at the subject, but his very existence maintains it. Phenomenal Sensation is a tongue-in-cheek message delivered in coded, surreal terms.
Scott Hutchison • Arlington, VA
Scott Hutchison joins the ranks of the contemporary surrealists whose interest in the surreal is more aesthetic than subconscious. For artists like Hutchison, surreal imagery is a conscious modification of reality. “I draw inspiration from the person I am painting or drawing,” Hutchison explains. “Think of the person as the melody. I then compose around, alter, distort, or add another melody to the work.”
These alterations remove Hutchison’s figures from the realm of possibility and position them in an alternative reality. Notable is the use of cool colors—like purple, blue, and green—to highlight the synthetic quality of this parallel universe. “I use those colors to amplify the synthetic world I am trying to create,” he says. “I want to create a world that is in flux; beautiful, surprising, real, and unreal at the same time.”
Another ‘conscious alteration’ Hutchison employs is the multiplication of body parts. In Procession, hands emerge from the subject’s face and neck, caressing it from all sides. The figure’s expression remains serene. Perhaps this is because Hutchison views hands as an extension of the self. “They are an expression of the mind, and [can be] used to communicate our thoughts and feelings,” the artist explains. And so, Procession is really a nuanced portrait of the sitter, depicted by the truth in his fingers rather than the depth of his eyes.
Fabián Ugalde • RoFa Projects • Potomac, MD
Like Hutchison, Fabián Ugalde approaches his ‘Expanded’ series quite consciously. The artist, who is showing at Superfine! DC with RoFa Projects, uses mathematical concepts to create works that only read as surreal. For Expanded Mona Lisa, Ugalde cut hexagons from the original image “one by one with a calculated offset.” He then reattached the hexagons, rendering the final image three times larger. “The image is distorted at the end of the reconstruction process,” Ugalde explains, “but it retains its iconic essence.”
And much like Lanigan, Ugalde achieves the sense of surrealism through the uncanny. His origin material is recognizable and therefore comfortable for the viewer, but the manipulation of this material ventures into strange new territory. Expanded DaVinci suggests a world that is similar to ours, but more mathematical in its construction. Imagine a universe where everything is pixelized into hexagons, and details are lost to greater pools of color.
Ugalde’s “Expanded” series—which also includes alterations of Grant Wood’s American Gothic—performs an additional surrealist task. It rejects an aspect of contemporary art culture. The 20th century surrealists had an axe to grind with the Enlightenment mode of thought. They felt that rationalism oppressed the subconscious mind. Ugalde takes issue with the systems that decide THE art for every generation, refusing other “conceptual proposals.” The artist’s use of the Mona Lisa, a painting that defined art during the Renaissance, makes a statement about market trends. He leans deeply into tradition while subverting it technically at every turn.
Bruce McGowan • Montreal, Quebec, CA
There is a socially conscious angle to Bruce McGowan’s work as well, although this painter’s target is “modern chaos” rather than the art world. McGowan is in the business of alerting people to their own excess, but recognizes that doing so is a delicate matter. His work “takes inspiration from our disruptive contemporary lifestyles,” but “sugarcoats them with colour and aesthetics.” The result is palatable. Viewers are first attracted to McGowan’s images. Only later do they see past the vibrant exterior and understand the depravity within.
It requires a degree of conscious thought to create such a paradox, but McGowan works simultaneously from his subconscious. His mind is filled with thematic and visual inspiration, from Norman Rockwell to the Rococo, Art Nouveau to old Disney movies. “Fragments of thoughts” from this database of imagery flood McGowan’s head while he paints. The artist maintains that his work is not pre-determined. “I let myself be guided by the moment and I like improvising,” he says.
This structured spontaneity situates McGowan well in the genre of contemporary surrealism. It is what allows his work to feel both urgent and surreal. In Skin Deep, McGowan takes a traditional portrait style and subverts it, choosing to show the figure’s anatomy rather than her powdered skin. The viewer is attracted to the gruesome yet painterly quality of the figure’s veiny musculature. McGowan wants viewers to wrestle with their attraction to the work, as it questions society’s notions of aestheticism.
The symbolism in Skin Deep also suggests a need to look underneath, well, everything. “In a world where everything has to be presented in an aesthetically polished fashion, I find the clash between superficiality and the disruptive under-layer [of society] to be emblematic of reality,” the artist explains. McGowan’s work asks that we examine ourselves after we examine his work, questioning our discomfort and attraction to the surreal.
In fact, all six artists ask something of their viewers. They ask us to suspend reality for a moment and travel with them to someplace new. We experience a sense of Deja Vu, as if we've been there before, but didn't it look different? These artists ask us to spend time in this space. To enjoy it, to question it, to marvel in its surreal beauty.
Our conclusion? The contemporary surrealists are too focused on what art can do for the viewer to collapse entirely into their subconscious minds. Their work is relevant, urgent, and delightful. Be sure to see these artists at Superfine! DC-- you might exit the fair and step into a parallel world.