The above image is not a pipe. It is a representation of a pipe created from cigarette ashes and resin by artist Michael Crowder, inspired by René Magritte’s iconic painting The Treachery of Images (1928-1929). This pipe is one of several of Crowder’s works currently on display in the exhibition Treachery of Material: The Surrealist Impulse in Craft at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft (HCCC). The exhibition presents a series of “puzzling and beautiful” objects made by Houston-based Michael Crowder and Estonia-based artist Julia Maria Künnap.
On the surface, Crowder and Künnap's works are composed of seemingly opposed materials: Crowder employs delicate glass and decomposable materials like ash and soap, while Künnap uses apparently more stable and solid gemstones and metals. The combination is intended to evoke reflection on the endurance of surrealist visual strategies among contemporary artists. As curator Sarah Darro explained, “I am not seeking to label the artists or the works in this show ‘Surrealist,’ but I am using Surrealism as a lens with which to understand the visual strategies and processes of these contemporary artists.” Through this lens, we readily see that both artists reference famous surrealist figures or motifs in their work. However, this lens also focuses on the continuing use of materials and techniques in unexpected and thought-provoking ways, a thread that connects contemporary artists like Crowder and Künnap with surrealist artists from the 1920s-1960s.
Darro, who is a Curatorial Fellow at HCCC, considers craft “as a way in which to approach all creative output (of any material) with an emphasis on process and materiality.” Artists we identify as “surrealist,” such as Salvador Dalí, Méret Oppenheim, and Pedro Friedeberg, experimented with “crafts” like jewelry and furniture design. As in all their works, the objects they created were dream-like and tapped into the depths of the subconscious mind. Materials and composition were essential to this function. Take, for example, Oppenheim’s Object (1936), a fur covered tea cup and saucer, or Dalí’s Lobster Telephone (1936). Both pieces encourage viewers to imagine what it would be like to use these objects, an exercise that evokes subconscious images or experiences that we associate with, in the case of these two pieces, fur or lobsters.
Reflecting on the artists in Treachery of Material, Darro explained, “The reason that I selected the work of these two artists to be in dialogue with one another is because I feel as though they exemplify a wide spectrum of Surrealist strategies and approaches to material.” Like the early surrealists, Crowder and Künnap choose their materials deliberately. Treachery of Material features several pieces from Crowder’s series “L’heure bleue,” which he created while working as an artist in residence at the Dora Maar House in the village of Ménerbes in southern France. “This body of work…is all about my memories of and reverence for my 20th Century art icons,” Crowder said. In particular, he continued, “Many of the works in ‘L'heure bleue’ are homages to Marcel Duchamp, who was absolutely revered by the Surrealists.” From Air amusé (Amused Air), a balloon formed of blown and cast glass, to Une petite pipe morte (A Little Pipe Death), which is cast from cigarette ashes and resin, the composition of each piece in “L’heure bleue” is a deliberate choice. “Glass and other translucent materials, such as sugar or paraffin, are used as different forms of embodied memory—often dematerializing as ghosts before the viewers’ eyes.” We see this in the masks of Du musée Sauvignons, three pâte de verre faces of women from Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Pâte de verre gives the impression that the particles once comprising the women's bodies have disintegrated, leaving behind ghostly particulate masks that are themselves slowly disappearing. In Crowder's words, “Fragile and ephemeral materials capture fragile and ephemeral memories at just the moment that they are slipping away and dissolving. Pâte de verre works especially well in portraying and arresting this moment of visual dissolution.”
The delicacy and ephemerality of Crowder's work is complemented by Künnap’s jewelry pieces. Her pieces can be worn, but, as Darro describes, “In her work, stones appear to be in an eternal state of melting, dripping, folding and bending” like the melting objects in Dalí’s La Persistencia de la Memoria (1931). "Our works do intersect by behaving in unanticipated ways for the viewer, either through unexpected materials or surprising juxtaposition of hard/soft objects," Crowder reflected on the intersection between his and Künnap's work. Darro emphasized that a major surrealist effect of Crowder's work is how he “creates sculptural objects which are made with the intent to defy the function they reference. They are inherently non-functional, yet they reference utility.” Pneu vélo verre, a cast glass bicycle tire, for example, would break upon use, just as Une petite pipe morte, though composed partly of cigarette ash, would melt if smoked. This is the treachery of material. The use of materials that defy and object’s function and, in Darro's words, “visually expos[e] a representation" are identified in this exhibition as Surrealist strategies.
The press release for Treachery for Material emphasizes how Surrealism “has maintained its strong cultural relevance since its introduction in the 1920s” and Darro considers how the "conceptual power" of the works on display is linked to materials and technique. It seems, then, that what is important in this exhibition is not only the continuity of surrealist visual strategies, but also the power that Surrealism has maintained through these strategies. “I think that part of the reason Surrealism has maintained such cultural significance over time is because it has functioned as a reactionary force against the tumult and irrationality of greater power structures. Its function societally as a critical force for new thought and modes of expression has allowed it to remain relevant both cross-culturally and over time,” Darro said. She explained that, in her own work, she has been highly influenced by Alfred Gell, the British social anthropologist who said that art acts as a “technology of enchantment.” For Gell, a work of art is not enchanting in itself. It enchants us because of the processes and materials with which it was created. Gell, in his well-known essay “The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology” says that the “essential alchemy of art” is “to make what is not out of what is, and to make what is out of what is not.” We see this with Crowder’s use of glass and non-traditional materials to create objects like smoking pipes and bicycle tires. There is indeed an enchanting alchemy to this and to glass itself: "With glass, it is possible to freeze an eternal drip, the way Dali’s paintings do. With pâte de verre, it is possible to achieve a solid state with an open crystalline structure that looks as delicate as a snowflake about to melt. With kiln-fired glass, it is possible to cast a perfect replica of a once durable object in fragile glass," Darro reflected.
But, for Gell, enchantment has a function. “As a technical system, art,” he explains, “is orientated towards the production of social consequences which ensue from the production of these objects.” Darro similarly notes that Surrealism serves a function in our society. “Interestingly, there seems to be a resurgence of Surrealism in fashion and design right now, during a moment that politically feels quite surreal,” she remarked. As an example, she pointed to Dior’s Spring 2018 collection, which was inspired, in part, by the work of Italian surrealist Leonor Fini. What could this resurgence mean? Treachery is a betrayal of trust, a deceptive act. Treachery of Material seems to offer space, then, to contemplate how and why the beguiling deception of Surrealism endures and what this means to the present moment.
IF YOU GO:
Treachery of Material: The Surrealist Impulse in Craft
Through April 15, 2018
Houston Center for Contemporary Craft
4848 Main Street
Houston, TX 77002