The concrete swaths of Sunset and Wilshire don't readily conjure images of abundant nature, lush dreamscapes and feminist activism. Yet these boulevards certainly have seen their share of otherworldly goings-on, and this month they prove to be fertile ground for two ambitious exhibitions — Os Gêmeos' “Miss You,” at Prism Gallery, and “In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States,” at LACMA — that wind their way luxuriously through the anything-goes terrain of surrealism.
Identical-twin brothers Otavio and Gustavo Pandolfo (Os Gêmeos is Portuguese for “the twins”) got their start as street artists in São Paulo. They now masterfully bridge the gap between the public and private sectors by throwing up murals in decrepit alleys as gleefully as they tackle site-specific installations at world-renowned museums.
At Prism, Os Gêmeos have populated the two-story space with a collection of paintings, sculptures and textiles that feels at once familiar and not familiar at all. The brothers' yellow-skinned, stick-limbed figures, folk-artsy flourishes and clashing geometric patterns may be instantly recognizable to their legions of worshippers, but when these tried-and-true characters assert themselves in the form of plastic heads bursting up through the floorboards, like a field of daffodils craning toward some unseen sun, or as intrepid forms disintegrating into a pile of wooden blocks (in their work The Artist), sinking into a striped vortex (PRISM) and plumbing the ocean's depths with puffer-fish guides (In the Depth of the Ocean It's Easier to Breathe), they open the door into an uncharted parallel universe that may overwhelm the uninitiated. Explosions of color, allusions to incomprehensible narratives, big eyes watching our every move, each of our breaths regulated by the beat of the ambient soundtrack … where to look first?
Yet what we experience initially as sensory overload, as an obligation to supercharge all of our synapses on command, gives way to curiosity, then to respect, then to elation, as we realize all the fun we can have by sitting back and letting Os Gêmeos do what they do best: suspend disbelief. All the classic elements of surrealism are here — fantasy, folklore, unfettered imagination — but the work exudes a particular vibrancy, thanks to details that pay homage to the artists' native Brazil: portraits of mixed-ethnicity subjects, homespun, embroidered scenes that would be right at home in a street market, and depictions of beachside recreation and impromptu musical jam sessions.
“Miss You” can stand on its own as a feast for the eyes, but LACMA's “In Wonderland” is the Michelin-starred main course. The first large-scale survey of work by female surrealists in North America, “In Wonderland” features 47 artists, among them the usual heavyweights — Frida Kahlo, Dorothea Tanning, Remedios Varo, Leonora Carrington — as well as the equally compelling Helen Lundeberg, Kaye Sage and Rosa Rolanda.
Both shows capitalize on surrealism's laissez-faire attitude toward portraiture, to great effect — that is, those funny-faced guys cavorting all over Prism's walls and floor may look crudely cartoonish, but that doesn't mean they express personality and emotions any less authentic than those of a photorealist painting. Where these two showcases diverge is in their core psychological approach: While Os Gêmeos go joyriding with the genre, the 175 pieces at the museum underscore one of surrealism's more formal functions, as a vehicle for female empowerment and self-articulation.
Organized into nine categories including “The Body,” “Romance and Domesticity,” “The Creative Woman” and “Postscript: Feminist Revolution,” the exhibition ranges widely in its exploration of topics such as women surrealists' nationalist sentiment (María Izquierdo's Autorretrato), transformation from male fetish objects into independent sexual beings (Lundeberg's The Mountain), divided identity and personal anguish (Kahlo's Autorretrato con Collar de Espinas y Colibrí; Sage's Danger, Construction Ahead) and affinity for Alice in Wonderland, which inspired the show's title.
So varied and emotionally transparent are the offerings of “In Wonderland” that surrealism takes on new meaning as a fluid set of tools that not only provides women with the means to bare their triumph and torment in equal measure but also adapts to its practitioners' changing needs.
From 1920s France to mid-20th century Mexico City to present-day L.A., surrealism has given rise to a body of work that serves all manner of visual expression — individual, cultural, political, sexual and gender-based. But at the heart of the movement is a unifying spirit that urges artists and observers alike not to be afraid to embrace subjective reality. As ambassadors of this ethos, Os Gêmeos and the women of “In Wonderland” play their part beautifully, but there's room on this stage for everyone.