Andre Robert Breton, Salvador Dali, Max Ernst and Rene Magritte are the names (all males) that come to mind when we talk about surrealism in art. Yet, a new exhibition called "The Virtues of Rebellion" in New York City breaks the male dominance of the surrealist school, focusing on works by women.
“The Virtues of Rebellion,” displayed at New York's Philips building, offers visitors the opportunity to explore the creative output of "women surrealists" starting from the first half of the 20th century and the artists working today that revive this rich legacy. The exhibition comes as a response to how women have been relatively less visible in the art world compared to their male colleagues. However, the artworks promote women’s empowerment and participation in society, while challenging patriarchal attitudes that subordinate, stigmatize or restrict women from achieving their potential.
Recent exhibitions, including "Surrealism Beyond Borders" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MoMA) and the Tate as well as "Milk of Dreams" at this year’s Venice Biennale, expand the definition of surrealism beyond the small group of Paris-based men that have historically represented the movement.
Today, a new generation of painters, including Emily Mae Smith, Julie Curtiss, Louise Bonnet and Aslı Özok, incorporate a similar surrealist lexicon into their art-making.
The exhibition showcased paintings, sculptures and photography about some of the most exciting female artists working today alongside their surrealist predecessors. While visiting the exhibition, I also saw two wonderful pieces by the Turkish contemporary artist Aslı Özok, and I was so impressed with the artworks. It was "The One," a sculpture, standing still as the symbol of awareness with eyes highlighted.
When I asked Özok about the stories behind her works, she revealed that sometimes what you see depends not only on what you choose to look at but also on where you look at it from.
“I did a lot of pattern work during the pandemic period. I finished maybe 4 1/2 notebooks and lived in different parts of the world. I released 15 sculptures as well as still paintings from 82 patterns. On this specific work, eyes appear as the symbol of awareness," she said.
"After the outbreak of COVID-19, I saw that many artists use the 'eye' image differently in their paintings – also meaning that at a certain frequency we all unite in the same symbol. In that sense, the pandemic process we experience was quite a surreal period. That's why the surrealism school gains importance much more than ever," she added.
Also highlighting the appearance of retrospectives and group exhibitions of surrealist artists at the iconic art shrines of the world such as Peggy Guggenheim museum, Phillips, Pace Gallery, Luxembourg & Co Gallery, Tate Modern, MoMA, she said: "My sculptures consist of forms representing unity and oneness. In the case of "The One," it is possible to see the forms representing both men and women there with visible two faces as a nod to nongender forms.”
Aslı Özok is a London-based painter with studios in Istanbul and Sevilla. She has participated in numerous international exhibitions, biennials and art fairs from Türkiye to other European countries and North America, as well as to Japan and Korea. Her works have been prized in collections for both private individuals and museums.
Over the past decade, there has been a growing recognition of the women who took part in surrealism. In that sense, New York City's “The Virtues of Rebellion” remaps the history of surrealism from the past to the present day, showing a wealth of work by women across a century as within all women there is the power to create, nurture and transform.
The exhibition can be visited at the Philips building in New York until Nov. 22.