Seeing is Disbelieving

A surrealist toys with self-imposed blindness

Surrealism" has been such a constant throughout the summer gallery season that you wouldn't be blamed for assuming this paper enforces some sort of quota for the term's usage. (We don't.)

Most galleries have used the word in its broadest sense, to describe experimental shows or those that otherwise bend expectations. At the near West Side gallery known as 1point618, however, an artist has been recruited whose work can be described only in the narrowest and most familiar definition of surrealism. Taking after the Continental avant-garde movement of the last century, painter Joe Stavec channels the best elements of the movement without merely imitating them; rather, he reinterprets surrealism in light of his own lived experience.

Born in Cleveland and now based out of a Cleveland Heights home that hosts a menagerie of dogs, cats, birds, fish, and other fauna, Stavec, 54, has been in dialogue with surrealism throughout his career. He sees the aesthetic as a means to challenge viewers' conditioned preconceptions and inspire them to more actively engage art and non-rational, creative impulses. "To me, surrealism is more than just a series of random stuff," he says. "I want to arouse the imagination and stir something in viewers, even if they don't know it."

Like Rene Magritte, who is cited as an influence, Stavec's works are quieter than the Freudian feverishness of Salvador Dali and Max Ernst. Rather than psychosexual nightmares, his pieces resemble witty, sometimes wicked daydreams. He often turns to storybooks and mythology, populating his canvases with legendary creatures like dragons, angels, and devils. Mediterranean arches and Greek amphitheaters evoke the legends of Olympus, and animals with witchy connotations like owls and bats make frequent appearances. But Stavec is attracted to folklore not simply because it furnishes arresting images.

"[Literature] reaches back into myth and history, and looks at a dream atmosphere," he says. "Everyone knows Grimms' fairy tales. They're almost like shared dreams." This shared vocabulary of the fantastic provides the viewer with the materials to play with the irrational tendencies that live with us today.

Stavec's clearest statement of this purpose is "It Would Soon Be Forgotten." In it, a woman with a Peter Pan haircut stands on an empty street, brandishing a can of Pepsi and smiling as if forced to for a family portrait. Her yellow polo shirt and pink pants suggest she dressed herself blindfolded. Scaly, emerald coils writhe at her feet and spill over the edge of the canvas.

Here, Stavec challenges the mind-set that would declare it's simply easier to enjoy a fizzy sweet drink than to engage our cultural history and the weird, dark elements of our psychology. The "dragon" we blind ourselves to could be the symbol of wildness and adversity forged in magic-haunted ages or the reptilian impulses we try to conquer by denying or explaining away. Either way, it's heavy stuff; better to sip and smile, and forget the monsters in the closet.

Significance lies not just with the drink itself, but with its instantly recognizable receptacle. The Pepsi can is not necessarily an indictment of branded society, but of the cold, hyperrationality of the systems that support it: industrial chemistry, mass manufacturing, and corporate marketing.

The motif of self-imposed blindness reasserts itself in "The Departure." Set in a grand, marble-walled lobby, the scene depicts two men in suits passing each other on staircases tunneling through the floor. Both wear brown sackcloth bags over their heads, which they hang with the minimal level of awareness needed to navigate a commute while bogged down with thoughts of work. They are determined but passionless, blind to the possibilities of imaginative exploration reified by the flying fish gliding overhead and the curious eyestalks peeping out from an elevator.

Stavec calls on his audience to cast off the sleep of received wisdom and unexamined syllogism, and think anew with irony and radicalism. Yet Stavec's work is not scolding, but conversational. His imagery is striking, but possessed of a degree of ambiguity, compelling an open-minded examination, the way a child engages with a strange new toy that will be treasured for years to come.

An Odd Itinerary of Scenes

Through September 25 at 1point618 Gallery,

6421 Detroit Ave.