NC Museum of Art reflects on legacy, memory and dreams with ‘The Surrealist Impulse’

The North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) is currently hosting an exhibit on surrealism in contemporary artwork. Running from Aug. 12, 2023 to Jan. 28, 2024, “The Surrealist Impulse” attempts to display the continued influence of a century-old cultural movement on artists of our time. 

Surrealism as we understand it today is a unique facet of art history, emerging as European artists like Salvador Dali, André Breton, René François Ghislain Magritte, and Max Ernst attempted to reconcile with the mass terror caused by World War I. A text description displayed at the exhibit states that “the art and literary phenomenon invigorated artists and thinkers to explore dreams, the irrational and uncanny, and the poetic in their works.”

As it evolved throughout the first half of the 20th century, surrealism took on a variety of forms and mediums. While many surrealist artists were painters, some photographers also strove to blur the line between dreams and reality.

According to Jared Ledesma, Curator of 20th-Century Art and Contemporary Art and the organizer of the exhibit, artists have continued to explore those same ideas in the decades after the end of surrealism proper.

“The Surrealist Impulse” can be found in Photography Gallery 2 (Allen G. Thomas Jr. Gallery) on Level B of the East Building of NCMA. Artworks are displayed along the walls of the horseshoe-shaped gallery, with benches placed in the middle.

One particular piece the curator highlights is Carolyn Janssen’s  “~*{G.O.E.D.}*~,” an archival inkjet print that collages photographs to create a bizarre dreamscape. The hot pink frame and tri-fold panel division invite visitors to look a little closer, discovering the hidden intricacy beneath the surface.

According to the exhibit’s website, “Works like Carolyn Janssen’s large-scale “~*{G.O.E.D.}*~” depict fantastical worlds that seem plucked from the chasms of the inner psyche.”

The exhibit also hosts a series of untitled gelatin silver prints by Kristina Rogers, who combines photographs in layers that emphasize contrast to reveal hidden meaning.

The same museum website explains, “The black-and-white photographs of Kristina Rogers adopt techniques of cropping and layering to blur reality and subtly serve as societal critiques.”

A personal favorite of mine was another gelatin silver print titled “New York State” by Kenneth Josephson. It is simple on the surface, a photograph of an arm holding a picture of a steamship out over an ocean horizon. However, within this simplicity there is a real sense of depth, especially in how Josephson plays with the viewer’s perspective.

Although the exhibit spotlights some truly thought-provoking art, the presentation of the core concept, including how it connects to each individual piece, leaves room to be desired. 

A brief explanation of how a particular work’s ideas relate to surrealism would assist museum-goers in parsing “The Surrealist Impulse.” Such an addition might allow visitors to better comprehend how surrealism is represented in a given work.

Additionally, because the museum has chosen not to display original surrealist works (or prints of them) alongside the contemporary art pieces, it is difficult to draw concrete ties between the historical surrealist movement and these more recent creations.

For students without prior exposure to surrealism, the half-hour commute to the museum may not be worthwhile. They may find themselves a bit confused by the curator’s message in this exhibit.

However, for those with familiarity with and appreciation of surrealism, or for those willing to do a bit of research beforehand, “The Surrealist Impulse” provides a thought-provoking exploration of a major cultural movement by showing its impacts on art throughout the decades. 

Bennett Gillespie profile
Bennett Gillespie

Bennett Gillespie is a Trinity first-year and a staff reporter for the news department. 


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