If there is one label more overused than “science fiction” these days, it’s probably “surreal.” Both terms summarize much about the times we occupy yet I’ve just seen them used to describe, respectively, a crypto party and an actor taking on a new acting job. With apologies to Phoebe Waller-Bridge, unless that new movie ends with Harrison Ford crucified on a hypercube, I doubt it was particularly surreal.
Enter Remedios Varo: Science Fictions, a stunning new show at the Art Institute of Chicago that brings together more than twenty works created by the Spanish artist between 1955 and her death in 1963—the first solo show dedicated to her work in the United States since 2000. There’s no doubting her Surrealist bona fides. When she fled Europe in 1941 she was already associated with the style and wrote to Frida Kahlo as she sought refuge in Mexico City, where she eventually settled with other members of the movement like Leonora Carrington. She blended her rigorous drafting with Surrealist “automatic” techniques.
As for the show’s title: “We have chosen to organize this presentation around the term science fictions in the belief that the tension in this phrase finds analogy and possibility in this two-fold mystery,” curators Caitlin Haskell and Tere Arcq write of her subconscious-conscious methodology, in the catalogue, “hinting at the human potential for discovery through both established disciplines and more hypothetical means that Varo exploited for her search to visualize hidden orders.” Fair enough. There are also plenty of starry works here that wouldn’t look out of place on an album cover.
One painting that fits the description is probably her best known: the Creation of the Birds (1957), seen at the 59th Venice Biennale, The Milk of Dreams, and certainly science fictional enough, in the way it merges the magical and natural with passion for craftsmanship, which happens also to be its subject. There are so many styles on display here. The bird-maker’s little helper might have been sculpted by Constantin Brancusi, while the birds themselves might have been drawn by John James Audubon. And who designed that desk?
The excellent catalogue has a four-page spread dedicated to Varos’ taxonomy of techniques, which included, cartoon, grattage, erasure, inlay, sgraffito, soufflage, underdrawing and thinning, among others. Hallazgo (Discovery) (1956) uses textured gesso to create otherworldly trees through which a boat navigates. It has staircases that don’t make sense, but the vessel is otherwise prosaic.
We live in a time where there are many rules for art. There’s something refreshing about the degree to which Varo makes and breaks so many of them in her paintings, not to be contrarian or anarchistic but in the service of trying to find some deeper, hidden truth, much like so many of the characters in her paintings.
Remedios Varo: Science Fictions is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through November 27.