Contemporary Surrealism and the paintings of Jonathan Gardner

Surrealism was a school or movement whose ideas dominated artistic production in the nineteen-twenties and -thirties. Its capital was Paris, though it spread around the world, and its influence reached as far as the high fashion industry (in the collections of Elsa Schiaparelli) and politics (alignment with various communist groups). Without diving into the complex and contradictory ideologies or artistic theories of the different strands of Surrealism, its aim can be summarised as this: to create work which reflected the subconscious, accessed through dreaming and trance. This idea found a multiplicity of expressions, such as in the dream landscapes of Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró and Giorgio De Chirico, the automatic writings of André Breton, and the subverted perception in René Magritte’s paintings. In Surrealism, ‘reality’ became an elastic term. While its heyday – and arguably its greatest innovation – was in the interwar period, Surrealist groups continued their activity, increasingly political, throughout the ‘sixties and ‘eighties. Some still exist to this day. The Surrealist Groups of Chicago, Leeds and Stockholm, to name a few, have produced little work in the twenty-first century but maintain more or less active websites.

American painter Jonathan Gardner (b. 1982) is a graduate of New York’s School of Visual Art and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is not affiliated with the Chicago Surrealist Group but his artistic practice has clearly been deeply influenced by Surrealism; critics consistently compare his paintings with those of Matisse and Magritte. Indeed it is hard not to, when you observe his smooth, flat canvases and trippy compositions with references to antique architecture, phallic elements and everyday objects taken out of context. Though his oeuvre is highly homogenous, the individual paintings present fragmented images, each object or aspect causing different associations. The result is that your mind jumps to conclusions before you have taken in the whole image – and that the work in its entirety takes on a different meaning, once you take a step back. It is in this way that Gardner’s paintings most recall Surrealism as it was established in post-war Paris.

Gardner’s work is not nostalgic however, but proudly contemporary. It doesn’t question how the world changed, but celebrates what it is now: the ever-increasing intricacy of social interaction in the age of social media, our relationship with nature, with information, with the body. The recurring theme of doorways or passages emerges upon closer examination of his oeuvre. Jonathan Gardner’s paintings often feature an entrance or a portal though which we see a different place – perhaps a different reality. There is Moon Passage for example. The doorway in this painting is a trompe l’oeuil, the kind you would find on frescoes in Roman gardens. Unlike those frescoes, however, the passage does not just suggest depth but seems to open up a way into a different realm. The passage forms a dark space in the middle of an otherwise sunny painting; the two moons and water pipe strongly recall dreamscapes and induced trance, both Surrealist tropes. But Gardner’s ‘contemporary surrealism’ goes further than that. In The Shadow Escape, the viewer is confronted with a nude with sunglasses, her hair half-up-half-down and painted nails: a portrait for the selfie-generation. The Bosch-like landscape with its fantastical creatures that takes the shape of the woman’s shadow speaks of a certain escapism. Does this painting interpret the popular theme of fantasy as an escape from the reality of modern life? It is also playful, almost mischievous. This painting speaks of a way of looking at our world, and perhaps of revealing hidden desires. In his focus on entrances or doorways, regression and mise-en-abyme, Gardner plays with the frames within frames of different realities. His fragmented, Surrealist language, which was once used to come to terms with industrialisation and the aftermath of a deadly war, effectively reflects and comments on the complexities of our contemporary environment.

There is an important distinction between being inspired by Surrealist artists, and continuing to apply their ideas. The former may produce ‘Surrealist’ work because its look suggests it, the latter produces Surrealist work because the image arose from the subconscious. Given the breadth of the movement, there should be no one ‘Surrealist look’ but painters like Dalí have become so famous that their work embodies what we have come to think of as Surrealism. In Gardner’s work this distinction becomes blurred. His visual language adapts that of French and Belgian painters in the interwar period, and seems almost unwittingly to achieve that other goal. Is it possible to ‘subconsciously’ create work that reflects the subconscious? The Surrealists would have disagreed, but some, no doubt, would have been enchanted by the prospect.