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(c) Jo Ann Callis. Courtesy of the artist and ROSEGALLERY

Dreamers Awake at the White Cube, Bermondsey

22 August 2017 Will Rathbone

Dreamers Awake charts the lasting influence of Surrealism on female artists. Featuring more than 50 practitioners, from the 1930s up till the present day, and spanning sculpture, photography, painting, collage and drawing, the exhibition is a challenging and often disturbing look at the role of the “woman” in Surrealism.

Right from the off, Dreamers Awake unsettles. Throughout each of the four galleries, female figures are presented as separate body parts, contorted objects or painted figures; it is uncomfortable viewing. The introduction – the only accompanying text in the exhibition – explains that the female figure in Surrealism is often “an object of masculine desire or fantasy” and that, for an art movement concerned with confronting “patriarchal society, convention and conformity” Surrealism’s gender politics are extremely conservative. Dreamers Awake aims to repurpose Surrealism, and switch the female role in the movement from that of a passive object into an active subject.
 
A recurring theme is one of restraint and restriction. Maria Bartuszová’s bronze sculpture Rebound Torso takes an uncertain form, and it is only when paired next to a print by American photographer Jo Ann Callis – Untitled (Tied Up) – that you see the similarity to the naked torso of Callis’ model, bound by thin wire that presses into the skin. Callis’ print sees the subject adopt a relaxed glamour-model pose, but the marks left by the invisible wire suggest pain and hidden restraints. A similar effect is seen later, in Francesca Woodman’s Horizontale, Providence, Rhode Island photograph.


Louise Bourgeois and Tracey Emin: A sparrow's heart, 2009 - 2010 © Tracey Emin
 
Some of the featured works are sexually explicit, and contain disturbing imagery. They are not easy to view. A series of cloth prints from Louise Bourgeois and Tracey Emin dominate the rear of South Gallery I. Small, jagged female figures are scratched aggressively onto patches of paint resembling large male torsos. The figures interact with darkly coloured erections in a variety of ways. One kneels, head bowed, as a penis ejaculates over her whilst another cradles an erection; a woman is seen hanging from another, or undergoing a phallic crucifixion. This is the tyranny of the penis – a cross to bear, an object of desire, a weapon used to humiliate. Other works in the series address ideas of self-worth, as inner dialogue is scrawled over the images, while elsewhere large pregnant female torsos with devilish foetuses suggest failed conception. It is a distressing depiction of the social trappings of gender and deep-rooted sexual politics.
 
Several works in the North Gallery address objectification, with Laurie Simmons’ print Magnum Opus II (the Bye-Bye) the most striking example: a black and white photograph of several household objects – a Dali-esque stopwatch, a microscope, a detached house – all sporting female legs in various poses. Slightly above the work is a quote from 1930s Surrealist Leonora Carrington: “I warn you, I refuse to be an object”. Nearby, two chairs sit atop one another in Sarah Lucas’ The Kiss. One has enormous breasts and is penetrated by the other‘s gargantuan  penis - both appendages made from stuck together Camel cigarettes. It is faintly absurd.


Laurie Simmons: Walking Cake II (Color), 1989 © Laurie Simmons. Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York
 
Two more works in the North Gallery provide relative moments of humour through equally ridiculous juxtaposition. LA-based Londoner Nevine Mahmoud’s two sculptures – Bosom and Miss her (peach) – are a tulip and peach which resemble a breast and a vagina respectively. It laughs at our ability to sexualise even the most normal or delicate of objects. British musician and artist Linder has a series of photomontages on display, where flowers are superimposed on pornographic imagery. Here the contrasting perceptions of femininity – as something delicate and beautiful, but also highly sexualised and desirable – are mocked as irreconcilable.
 
These moments of lightness are few and far between. Much of the work is bleak, and a pervading sense of despair is punctuated only briefly. A series of three porcelain sculptures from Rachel Kneebone – each a macabre snarl of appendages and tree-like roots – sit opposite the dismembered limbs and hulking masses of Berlinde de Bruyckere’s Animal and Amputeren zei je. The comparative lightness of Paloma Varga Weisz’s limewood sculpture Couple, where a man and a woman from a bygone era gaze forlornly at a small vagina, is a relief. So too are the marvellously inventive photographs of Carina Brandes – a series of untitled images where the artist poses with various props – including a dog – to play bizarre visual tricks.


Carina Brandes: Untitled (CB096), 2012 © Carina Brandes. Courtesy BQ, Berlin. Photo: Roman März
 
Dreamers Awake is difficult viewing, and the all-pervading atmosphere of suppression can be suffocating. But perhaps that is the purpose behind the exhibition. The lack of accompanying text leaves the artworks room to speak, and the overwhelming weight of the combined pieces – freed from the trappings of the genre – transfer their former burden to the viewer. Time away softens the effect, but the lasting impression is of the damage done to the female body from years of stifling gender politics. It is cathartic, uncomfortable and disturbing – but undoubtedly provocative and charged with a force that leaves a lasting imprint.
 
Dreamers Awake runs at the White Cube, Bermondsey, until 17 September. Entry is free.
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