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The Cafe Irreal: Irreal (Re)views

Irrealism and the visual arts

by Garrett Rowlan

Recently, The Cafe Irreal published an essay by G.S. Evans contrasting surrealism and irrealism, the latter characterized by the juxtaposition of the real and unreal. As it’s not a long step from juxtaposition into opposition, irrealism contains a dramatic potential, a flair for contrast and conflict that is the spark of artistic possibility. Irrealism’s underlying aesthetic of antithesis engenders creation beyond the field of literature.

The unreal as employed in works of irrealism is a shadowy, protean force, having both a metaphysical and human dimension. It distorts time and place in the novels of Kafka and in Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled. In Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist it’s an entire world, vaguely reminiscent of New York in the fifties, but with the author’s own imaginative quirks. The unreal is a psychological force. It’s an irrational, menacing bureaucracy in Kafka’s novels, the distortions of celebrity in Ishiguro’s, or competing elevator-inspection techniques in The Intuitionist. (Though I always thought that the underlying metaphor for that book was music, the improvisational nature of jazz versus the from-the-charts playing of white musicians.) Whatever the case, the unreal is an entity that offsets, opposes, or threatens the real world. This relation necessitates that a proportion is maintained between the two, a ratio to ensure that the unreal is more than just an isolated force, rather an entire world lurking at the boundaries of the actual one.

Extending this notion into the world of art is a tricky proposition. For example, deciding if a painting is "irreal" or not involves a sense of gradation to judge whether such and such a work of art establishes a correct balance between the real and unreal. In "The Nightmare" (1791) by Henry Fuseli, a gnome-like figure hovers over the prostrate form of a sleeping woman, thus establishing a basic real/unreal relation between the two. It may be the first irreal painting. Or it may not. If the gnome-like figure is interpreted as a vision of the sleeping woman, then the entire effect of the painting may be said to be "just a dream," a notion that is contrary to irrealist theory. Less problematic are the early works of the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978). De Chirico, a forerunner of the surrealists, uses tilted perspectives, long twilight shadows, and lurking individuals in paintings that were called metaphysical, though irreal might be better.

What qualifies de Chirico’s work as irrealist? To begin with, his paintings are fundamentally real, which is to say that unlike the fantastic landscapes of Yves Tanguy, the fusion-created forms of Arshile Gorky, or the distorted shapes of Salvador Dali, de Chirico’s visions are fundamentally of and from the everyday world. De Chirico, says Laura Rosenstock, uses the objects of everyday life, "removed from their usual function, incongruously juxtaposed with unrelated elements, and frequently depicted on an irrational scale," creating, "disturbing relationships and a sense of malaise." I would suggest that this malaise, which recalls Kafka, has to do with the sense of another world lurking, hovering like the long shadows that dominate de Chirico’s paintings, which frequently depict a landscape at twilight’s uncertain hour. Malaise and mystery are all by-products of the interaction of the real and the unreal, the rub and contact of two worlds caught on irrealism’s shimmering surface.

Photography, one may say, is all surface, and its potential for multiple exposures can certainly suggest this intersection. Beginning with the so-called "spirit photographers" of the 19th century, in which an ancestor would hover in the frame near a living relative, photography has shown itself capable of implying multiple realities. However, those spirit photographers have the same relationship to a contemporary photographer such as Gregory Crewdson that Fuseli had to Giorgio de Chirico. Both Crewdson and de Chirico are able to express in their work that delicate relation between the real and unreal that is the essence of irrealism.

Crewdson, whose latest collection, entitled "Twilight" was recently displayed at the Gagosian gallery in Beverly Hills, uses large scale digital prints, usually forty-eight by sixty inches, of painstakingly staged photographs. Their surfaces are exquisitely detailed and realistic, done in a sharp deep focus that depicts everyday locations—rooms, streets, backyards—in eerie tableaux that leave impressions of mystery and malaise. True to their title, they depict scenes at dusk (as do de Chirico’s paintings) where reality is about to dissolve into its opposite. Crewdson’s photographs depict an enormous flower pile mounted on a suburban street; a teenage boy reaching through a sink toward a river of sludge below; a woman floating in her flooded living room; a man obsessively drilling holes in a floor through which shafts of light shine upward; a family scene at dinner into which a nude woman walks…

These descriptions of just a few of Crewdson’s work can only suggest their strange beauty, which doesn’t fall under the aegis of surrealism. Their dream-like state is not about the photographer having a dream. Despite, or maybe due to Crewdson’s extensive production values, they create their own, self-enclosed world, whose meaning seems apparent to those within the frame. However, as viewers, our interpretation will vary, yet there is always this sense a relation between the real and unreal. Rick Moody, in an essay written for the catalog that accompanies Crewdson’s photographs, says much the same thing. He states that the photographer creates a world "in which opposites repel one another anew, in which civilizations embrace their obverses, in which paradoxes dance wildly…"

Embracing the obverse is a touchstone well kept in mind when evaluating irrealism in the visual arts. A fine-tuned sense of proportion between the real and unreal must be operant. Since artists themselves are frequently seeking some kind of balance within their works, there many be more irrealism around than we realize, if we only know how to look.

Works Cited

Laura Rosenstock. "De Chirico’s Influence on the Surrealists," in De Chirico. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1982.

Rick Moody. Essay in Twilight, Photographs by Gregory Crewdson. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2002.

Garrett Rowlan lives in Los Angeles. Recently, he's had an essay published at the Rockhurst Review and another on Borges at The Modern Word.

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