The ‘Strange’, the funny, the grotesque – BAMPFA unveils surrealist exhibition


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Pickles wedged between toes, a full leather mask and one Barack Obama bong – BAMPFA’s “Strange” exhibit will take visitors on an intriguing mental journey ranging from feelings of unease to whimsy.

BAMPFA’s “Strange” exhibition stems from student feedback asking to see more surrealist art, said BAMPFA media relations manager A.J. Fox. According to Fox, while not all art in the exhibition can technically be classified as surrealism, all pieces have some thematic connection to the style of art. The exhibition features over 100 works and is one of BAMPFA’s largest shows. 

More than just a style of art, surrealism began as a cultural phenomenon in the 1920s. The era was born of artists’ fascination with the unconscious. Art from this period and style has a propensity to come across as illogical and unnerving. Though this aspect is highlighted in the exhibition, ‘Strange’ also plays with the more eccentric aspects of surrealism as well.

Though surrealism is often associated with dreamlike, disquieting images, the “Funny Strange”  portion of the exhibition particularly stood out with its use of humor and satire. A plaque for this section stated that humor is strange because it can be spurred by things that are “odd and unfamiliar.” 

The works in this portion reflected this idea, provoking feelings both of amusement and unease — especially among a number of pieces from Austrian artist Erwin Wurm, which included a two-photo series called, “One-Minute Sculptures.”  The first photograph features a person from the thigh down, standing upright with pickles between their toes. The second photograph features a woman laying down in a T-position atop multiple oranges that seem to levitate her off the floor. These photos, amid the more unnerving pieces of art, give the viewer a breath of fresh air. Though looking at these photographs may leave the viewer feeling strange, the emotions incited by the art are closer to amusement than discomfort. 

Not only does the exhibition display the differing themes within surrealism, but much of the work comes from around the world and many are also made with a variety of mediums. The viewer can be looking at a late 19th-century woodblock piece from Japan and then glance over to see an ink and watercolor piece from 17th-century Bohemia. The diversity of styles and art offers an expansive look into how surrealists often draw inspiration from each other and from different cultures. 

No matter where they are originally from, the viewer may find that many pieces are indelible —  their grotesque or provocative nature can stay in viewers’ minds even after leaving the museum. American artist Lesley Dill’s “Hair Poem Body (A Work made Flesh is seldom)” is particularly jarring, featuring a yellow paper cutout of a body seemingly opened up, with hair sewing words into it. 

Though some pieces may be easily remembered for their uneasy nature, some pieces seem to evoke the more playful aspects of surrealism’s portrayal of the unconscious. Jim Drain’s “Scribble” is a large mixed media piece placed in the center of the gallery. Colorful cloth is stretched, draped and pulled over various objects to form a colorful, exuberant piece that looks interesting from every angle. 

The exhibition will be on display through early next year. Beginning in November, a film will also be screened at BAMPFA in conjunction with another exhibition: “Strange: Surrealist Tendencies in Cinema.”

“Strange” is an exhibition that combines a diverse range of artistic practices and mediums as a means to evoke the full emotional range of the surrealist movement. After a walk through the space it’s easy to feel amused, intrigued, slightly unnerved — and definitely “Strange.”


Contact Sabrina Dong at [email protected].