The Artists Putting a Contemporary Spin on Surrealism

Alina Cohen
Jul 5, 2019 8:00PM

Julie Curtiss, Appetizer, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Anton Kern Gallery.

Surrealism grew out of the angst of the 1920s. Countries across the globe were still reeling from the devastation of World War I. The Western world was just coming around to radical new art forms such as Cubism and jazz. Advances in radios, medicine and psychology, commercial airlines, and automobiles were helping people rethink the mind and body, as well as the future of communication and transportation. Out of this chaotic blend of progress and loss, André Breton established a new philosophy. In his 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, he outlined the movement’s contours and wrote about how dreams and reality would resolve into “a kind of absolute reality, a surreality.” Salvador Dalí would go on to paint melting clocks, while Frida Kahlo rendered herself as a wounded deer.

Breton noted that artists had been working in this vein for centuries: He named essayist Jonathan Swift, libertine philosopher the Marquis de Sade, and poet Arthur Rimbaud as past surrealists. These assertions suggested their dreamy mode wasn’t a fad, but an impulse common to many artists and writers across centuries. It has, in fact, persisted in various forms since the height of its popularity in the mid-20th century. In 2019, artists are still creating pictures, photographs, and films that revel in the uncanny. Below, we investigate a few of their practices.


For painter Julie Curtiss, a certain surrealist quality is “ever-present in the arts and in life.” Like many of her 20th century predecessors, she’s influenced by psychology. In particular, she embraces Carl Jung’s idea of archetypes—underlying, universal patterns of thinking and categorizing. Curtiss’s canvases feature bold colors and pared down compositions that bring her symbols into sharp relief. She focuses on unexpected juxtapositions of textures, objects, and body parts that lead the viewer into surprising new perspectives.

Julie Curtiss, Quarantine, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Anton Kern Gallery.

Julie Curtiss, Nymphéa, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Anton Kern Gallery.

In No Place Like Home (2017), for example, Curtiss renders a plated turkey in fine brushstrokes that convey hair where the bird’s skin should be. The rounded lumps of the drumsticks mirror the cleavage of the woman holding the dish. The painting suggests discomfiting associations between sex and eating, human and animal, without making any moralizing or definitive claims. While she feels it’s essential to keep her work open-ended, the painter also says she believes “in the power of meaning, which is carried collectively and individually through symbols, myths and archetypes.” And Curtiss sets herself apart from her forebears. “It seems to me the Surrealists were more interested in the power of the unconscious to deconstruct,” she offered, “while I am interested in its power to construct.”

Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley make black-and-white films chock-full of jarring, often funny images. In This is Offal (2016), a mouth appears on the ankle of a leg lying on an autopsy table, reciting poetry. Her characters often wear faux eyeballs and elaborate, cartoonish costumes. Vague nostalgia infuses her films, which reference mythology and literature.

Mary Reid Kelley
This Is Offal
Arratia Beer

Reid Kelley, however, doesn’t consider her work surrealist. “It has absurdist elements, which is a broader category that some Surrealists moved in as well,” she said. Yet, she loves André Breton’s Anthology of Black Humor, a collection of writings by authors ranging from Franz Kafka to Edgar Allan Poe to Lewis Carroll.

Mouths with eyes where a tongue should be; ghostly female forms; and mirrors that reflect women’s bodies are all hallmarks of Penny Slinger’s five-decade career. The British artist, who currently lives in California, maintains her dark, witchy aesthetic throughout her drawings, collages, film, and video. Recently, she even collaborated with Dior to design a dress that resembles a dollhouse.

Penny Slinger
Bitter Lemons – Homage to Lawrence Durrell, 1973
Blum & Poe

Slinger believes that Surrealism is timeless, as the subconscious and dreams are relevant in any society, at any time. “As Surrealism does not conform to rational paradigms, it is uniquely suited to express the intuitive, feminine realms,” she said. “As this is the time of the rise of the feminine, the surrealist mode is a good choice for 2019.” Max Ernst, who created fantasy realms through his collage books, was a major influence on Slinger.

Chen Zhou’s films are awash in color and strangeness. I’m not not not Chen Zhou (2013), for example, features a scene in which two men in yellow suits sit against a yellow wall, listening to headphones. Music plays, ostensibly featuring the beats the characters are listening to—religious singing, interspersed with the line, “Jesus was a b-boy.”

Chen alternately opts for a blue palette in her 2018 film, Blue Hole (2018). The narrative features a woman in a blue cave, communicating on her phone. Meanwhile, two girls wander around the grassy expanse outside. They discuss childhood memories, giving the viewer insight into their psyches.

Dada, the major precursor to Surrealism, used collage to convey the fractured nature of modern life. Though the two movements embraced different philosophies—Surrealism was interested in psychology and the unconscious while Dada embraced nonsense—they both involved unusual distortions and juxtapositions. Photomontages grew out of dadaism, uniting disparate images from mass media into new, revealing compositions.

Quinn riffs on the photomontage form, using multiple found portraits—from Instagram, magazines, and websites—and combines parts of each into a single mash-up of a composition. Instead of using the dadaists’ cut-and-paste technique, though, he paints: His brushstrokes unite disparate elements into one cohesive whole. Resulting ideas about fragmented identities tie back to the surrealists’ interest in psychology and the unconscious.

Jonathan Meese’s colorful, chaotic paintings update the anarchic aims of the Surrealists of the 1920s. “To fight against reality is one of the most needed tasks and issues of art,” he offered. “Art destroys all politics. Surrealism is the land of total power.” One of his canvases, HEY, PASSENGER, PASSIER MIR DIE NILLN'-PASS-AGE (AUF-AUF) (2012), even spells out the word “REVOLUTION” across the bottom. Meese’s work features ghoulish faces and wild swirls of color which resolve into body parts—an eye or a set of teeth, for example.

Jonathan Meese, GUIDO QUILLERZ A.R.T. IS BACK!, 2018. © Jonathan Meese. Courtesy of the artist and David Nolan Gallery, New York. Photo by Jan Bauer.

Jonathan Meese, HALT, DEIN FISCHAUGE, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and David Nolan Gallery, New York. Photo by Jan Bauer.

Salvador Dalí is a particular inspiration to Meese, who’s developed his own exuberant, near-theatrical artistic persona. “Surrealism is the Dreamland. Surrealism is Total Play. Surrealism is stronger than politics,” Meese said. “Surrealism shows us a way out of ideological brainwashing.”

Inka Essenhigh’s painting Kitchen 2623 C.E. (2019) envisions a futuristic domestic space. A smoky, angelic female figure floats in a purple kitchen, above a floor that looks like astroturf. An anthropomorphized pan in front of her appears to grab fruit, a whisk, and various kitchen utensils in the process of making food. Such fantastical situations, rendered with fairy tale hues and softness, are a hallmark for the painter.

Describing why she works in a surrealist mode, Essenhigh said, “I can’t help it! Even if I make a picture with nothing distorted it is read as surrealistic. It just oozes out of me.” The Surrealist idea of “automatic drawing,” or unplanned sketching that supposedly brings out an artist’s subconscious, is particularly helpful for her practice. Essenhigh’s paintings allow her to explore “the deeply mysterious nature of the world.”

Alina Cohen