There’s a case to be made that Belgian surrealist René Magritte (1898-1967) is the most influential artist of the last century. The unending series of whiplash dislocations that made dreams of flight, speed, instant communication and moving images become realities felt like surrealism come to life, and Magritte’s work seemed to embody the bridge between dreams and reality better than any of his peers. His vocabulary of archetypal images — birds, hands, fish, rocks, water, clouds, eyes — and his distinctive style of painting never-could-happen scenes so vividly that you feel like you’ve been there have been reinterpreted by countless other artists and appropriated for film, advertising, and book and record jackets.
And his influence is everywhere in Just Suppose, a show of works by Florida-based husband-and-wife photographers Jerry Uelsmann and Maggie Taylor, now at the Cleveland Institute of Art’s Reinberger Gallery. Uelsmann began toying with his darkroom-created multiple images back in the 1960s; Taylor, his student at the University of Florida at Gainesville, did the same in Photoshop in the ’90s. Both endured scoffing from the fine-art photography establishment. Just Suppose quietly taunts those critics. Hung side by side, their work firmly makes the case that their powerful artistic visions and finely honed senses of aesthetics make the means by which they created their images insignificant.
Taylor’s work — pigmented ink-jet collages incorporating both found imagery and images she’s photographed — is more immediately arresting. Consider “Twilight Swim” (2004), the knockout image of the show. In it, a woman in a salmon-pink slip gown stands up to her waist in water, a vast, empty oceanscape. Wreaths of foliage and two golden fish are draped around her neck, and she’s wearing a green swim cap. Her lower body is visible underwater, slightly blurred. A sharply focused goldfish stares at her blankly. He’s got a black shark fin strapped to his back. In the delicately rippled sea behind her, four more shark fins circle, breaking the surface of the water. Above the sea, an eerie sky deepens from fluffy pink clouds where it meets the water to a deep, rich blue at its crown. It’s sprinkled with vivid stars and a shrouded moon. It’s like no twilight that ever was, yet it evokes atavistic emotions, memories flittering at the corners of the mind.
Any literal dissection of this image feels beside the point. You want to just wallow in the unearthly colors, in the interplay of textures — the softness of the sky and the shimmer of the underwater scene contrasting with the crispness of the woman’s upper body and the observing fish — and especially in the ambiguous mixture of menace and beauty the image conveys. It’s a busy photo, full of apparently incongruous parts, but it coalesces into an arresting whole. How Taylor arrived at the image — the endless hours spent tweaking the elements in Photoshop — doesn’t matter as much as the fact that she created such a provocative vision.
In addition to her unsettling imagery, Taylor deploys two techniques that blur the edges of wakeful reality and dreams. Her skillful use of contrasting textures jolts the eye — and mind — from one psychological state to another. In “The Patient Gardener,” for instance, a nude statue-like woman with outstretched arms rises from a bed of foliage that twines up her body, obscuring everything but one breast and an eye. Electric-blue butterflies circle her. The foliage and butterflies are rendered with hard-edged tactile vividness. But the landscape behind her — a tiny, glowing house, floating in a strangely bright, misty night scene presided over by a pearly moon — is hazy and elusive. Many of Taylor’s images are placed in a stagelike setting, as if they are part of an amateur production of some kind or the contents of a diorama (the assortment of images in boxlike settings evokes the work of another surrealist, Joseph Cornell). In “Something to Do,” the scene — a young boy in 1900s attire wearing a purple eye mask holds a giant tabby cat, also wearing a purple eye mask — is bookended by red theatrical curtains. The backdrop of silhouetted trees on a blue field looks like a stage cyclorama, but the boy is standing on a lawn so detailed that each blade of grass is visible. Next to him, a spotlight hits a glass of milk sitting on the lawn, which the cat eyes covetously. “Trouble” shows another young boy sitting in a chair in the foreground — full-face, arms crossed. A burning tree and a hulk of a ruined building are visible in the distant background. The entire scene is framed by melting edges, a reminder that it’s all nothing more than a piece of paper, an artificial scene.
Jerry Uelsmann’s black-and-white images are cooler and more subtle, and owe a much more direct debt to Magritte. It’s Uelsmann who adopts that visual vocabulary — the watch sprouting from a tree, the eyes peering from rocks, the floating boulders, a tree trunk with a window, the water pouring from a picture frame. Unlike Taylor’s bravura pictures, Uelsmann’s tease the viewer with their surface literalness, a matter-of-factness that gives the strange elements a frisson of surprise, as he slyly plays with expectations.
This show contains many high-contrast, detailed shots of dramatic landscapes that mimic the work of Ansel Adams — in fact, many were shot at Yosemite, Adams’ old stomping ground. Yet Uelsmann injects elements of unreality — a waterfall turns into a woman, a sky contains the same ripples as the water below it, a rock’s watery reflection lacks the woman standing on a rock, a tree trunk contains a brightly lit, barred little window — which tell you he’s not simply recording what was in front of him (of course, Adams also made adjustments to make reality more dramatic; he just didn’t let on).
Since he first began superimposing human features on trees (and much of his early work was hokey), Uelsmann’s work has acquired a more complex narrative undercurrent. In “Korean Mystery,” a boulder floats in a path between long, low buildings, perhaps a temple of some kind. Another boulder leans against a wall in the foreground. Overhead, five ginkgo leaves float in the sky. In “The Long Now,” a brilliantly lit huge hand holds an old pocket watch in front of a frosted window. The trees outside and a shadowy figure are barely visible. On the windowsill inside, a black bird sits (a recurring image in Uelsmann’s work). “Home Is a Mystery” is dominated in the foreground by a giant boulder, out of which an eye peers. Behind is an expanse of country road, flanked by overgrowth; at the back, a white saltbox house sits on a flatbed truck. The road appears to have both water and grass textures layered on it, and the black bird sits just behind the boulder. There are stories here — and like dreams, they aren’t logical or linear or even relatable in a way that makes sense to someone else. But an engaged observer will grasp an unspoken truth that will be both unique to him and universal.
Just Suppose: The Images of Jerry Uelsmann + Maggie Taylor, CIA Reinberger Galleries, 11141 East Blvd., Through August 8, 216.421.7000.