The 1920s writer Andre Breton defined surrealism as "a way to resolve the contradictory conditions of dream and reality." Surrealist art tends to be unnerving and illogical; a reflection of an alien world where all is not what it appears to be; a world filled with bizarre creatures strange people and the impossible. Such is the show “Visual Curiosities” at Gallery 1311.
Although this is a two-person show, I will be reviewing only Mary Solberg’s work. You’ll have to visit the gallery to see my sculpture and experience the show in its entirety.
Solberg’s paintings appear, at first glance, to be quite normal, until you take that second look and realize, “oh no, that can’t be right,” but indeed it is. In the encaustic portrait “Follow Me,” a bear is smiling and cradling a burning heart in his paws. In the oil pastel portrait “Elizabethan Collar,” a large surly-eyed dog stares back at you expressing his displeasure with the cone collar he is wearing. In the double oil pastel and gold leaf portraits “Ground Hog Eating Candy Corn,” you see just that, ground hogs nibbling large pieces of candy corn. Solberg’s work is filled with dark humor, and as surreal as these images are, they make you smile.
But it is not just about the imagery. The technique Solberg uses to create her paintings is equally fascinating. Her basic mediums are oil paint, encaustic and oil pastel, with all three often used in a single work. She draws direct to canvas, with no preliminary sketching, working on either a white or black ground.
In her encaustic work she uses a blend of beeswax and damar resin that is melted together and then applied directly to the canvas with brushes, sticks and whatever is handy to spread it around. It is a slow process of adding pigments and gently layering each application, re-melting and smoothing it with a heat gun. It is a technique that dates back to the 4th century B.C. Originally used by Greek ship builders to caulk their boat hulls, it developed over time into "encaustic painting" that has survived the centuries and is still a popular medium today.
Her oil pastel paintings are rich, deep and seem more a drawing technique than a
painting technique. Again, like the encaustic medium, her choice of particular oil pastels lends a certain mystique to the imagery. Solberg uses Sennelier oil pastels that were originally created for Pablo Picasso by Henri Sennelier in Paris. They have a buttery consistency with an intense and highly saturated pigmentation that allows for subtle blending.
Although animals are an intriguing theme in the show, Solberg also focuses on the human portrait and figure. Portraits such as “Lily” display a cheerful sadness. “Lily’s” bare shoulders, the heart tattoo on her chest and pendulous breasts suggest a woman who has seen a harder life perhaps as a circus performer. “Sparkler” shows a young girl wearing a tutu and holding her radiating magic wand upright ready to reach out and turn the ordinary into something quite different. “The Three Graces” shows three infant babies holding each other, floating against a background of gold leaf. At first a little startling one realizes that they are quite content and happy. Are they new born goddesses already old in their wisdom?
The largest oil pastel and gold leaf portrait is “Jefferson Toulouse,” Solberg’s great-great-grandfather. It is part of her Ancestor Icon Series. He stares at you with kind and solemn eyes that hold secrets about the family estate in Toulouse, France.
Solberg’s work draws you in, messes with your mind and then lets you step back and reconsider what is possible or not.