Fair or not, timing can be detrimental to an art exhibit. So can its title. As George Barsamian’s brilliant exhibit “Time and Transformation” enjoys its last weeks at the University Museum of Art’s Off-Site gallery, “Real/Surreal,” a three-artist show at the Ann Arbor Art Center running through Oct. 8, seems weak at first glance.

Jessica Boullion
Jessica Boullion
Art currently on exhibit at the Ann Arbor Art Center includes work by Susan Carman-Vian, Joseph Daniel Fiedler and Teresa Petersen. (Courtesy of the Ann Arbor Art Center)

Barsamian’s kinetic sculptures capture an individual and collective unconscious to an unsettlingly high degree. By keeping a razor’s edge between the unknown and the recognizable, Barsamian reexamines and reinterprets surrealism. The mixed collages and paintings at the AAAC don’t hold a candle to Barsamian’s four pieces, but that fault is not entirely at the feet of Susan Carman-Vian, Joseph Daniel Fiedler and Teresa Petersen, the exhibited artists. The works comprising “Real/Surreal” are misrepresented by a divisive title.

The name “Real/Surreal” immediately creates in the audience’s mind a polarity between two worlds that are not wholly opposite, placing each work in one sphere or the other. The potentially successful works are thus marginalized through a narrow lens.

Few of the exhibit’s works embody the possibility that surrealism is the direct expression of the artist’s subconscious. And the ones that do attempt that realization rarely succeed. Carman-Vian’s series of “Snowballs” – “Upper Peninsula Snowball,” Childhood Snowball,” “Global Economy” and “Teaching Career Snowball,” to name most – are too direct and childish. Her mixed-media canvases are the weakest pieces in the exhibit.

Fiedler better embodies the exhibit’s purported vision. His mixed-media paintings cover a larger range and leave more room for the viewer to come to an independent conclusion – as opposed to Carman-Vian’s spoon-fed realizations. His “Fathers of Ornothology II” and four-part series “Audobon Jesus,” aside from adding to the exhibit’s amusing amount of waterfowl, are personal windows that play on the edges of complete comprehension. Much like Barsamian’s “Lather,” Fiedler allows the viewer enough signs to form the edges of understanding, but leaves the middle to be filled in with his own personal, indecipherable memories.

But he finds more success in his “Lies About my Grandmother.” Comprised of six portraits of one woman in the same position – five are small, one significantly larger – the series uses repetition and varying color schemes to a subtle, emotive effect. There is no resolution to the series’s “lies,” opening up a space between the subject and the viewer, challenging the latter to meet the former in the eye.

Although Fiedler finds a foothold in the exhibit’s theme, Petersen’s dominant collages break free from it. Her nods to pop art – Andy Warhol, Roy Lichenstein – extend far into the nostalgic corners of the American experience.

Petersen’s images have the vocabulary of the ’50s. But she’s smirking with both and ironic and sarcastic edge. “Gardening for Children” is not surreal. While there’s an element of personal reference – he is a woman, she grew up around lives with social constructs of female propriety – it would be difficult to call such a composition surreal. While surrealists have used popular imagery as a tool, in Petersen’s case it comes off as a wry social viewpoint: Look how ridiculous these outdated notions are.

But in the context of Peterson’s collages, the viewer is presented a culmination of experience, not the internal workings of one’s subconscious. The fact that her medium is collage – a mixed assembly of images not original to the artist – affects the personal expression of the piece. Liedler’s ducks drip with seemingly careless paint; Carman-Vian’s thickly drawn figures reflect basic emotion.

Petersen’s wonderful “Woman and Moon Match Up Game” and “A Couple Embarking Match Up Game” look like they came from a barn in northeast Connecticut. They consist of parallel rows of images on separate bars that slide on top of each other to create random combinations. These two works stretch into the absurd. And it’s wonderful.

“19, 683 Possibilities” and “Mile High Pie” push this even further. The latter is a throw up of the good ol’ American family out in the wilderness with floating pancakes and other food. The former, like the “Match Up Games,” looks like an antique children’s toy. In comparison, her collages appear as springboards into her assemblages.

With three artists jostling for position under an awkward umbrella, the results land all over the map. Surrealism is a problematic qualifier; note that the Barsamian exhibit leaves it out of the title, but it also can be a wonderful devil’s advocate to antagonize an artist’s work. – or the audience’s perception of it.

Real/Surreal
Through Oct. 7
Free
At the Ann Arbor Art Center

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