Surrealism developed in the 1920s following the ideas of Sigmund Freud and the raucous art objects of the Dada movement. With its emphasis on self-expression, internal conflict, subconscious motivation and personal symbolism, Surrealism is easily seen as the movement that most influenced the American view of art.
One of surrealism’s greatest American ambassadors was Joseph Cornell (1903-1972), who championed the art of assemblage (in which found objects are collected or joined to make a sculpture). Cornell is best known for his glass-faced wooden boxes, obsessively filled with Victorian-edged objects set in richly symbolic order.
Maine is no stranger to assemblage. One of America’s most important assemblage artists was none other than our own Louise Nevelson (1899-1988).
John Sideli’s assemblages at Whitney Art Works are beautiful and compelling. They reveal ties to both Cornell and Nevelson but more in terms of their satisfying complexity than any superficial similarity.
Sideli maintains an overall aesthetic deeply tied to antique American toys and tools, so his shows are imbued with a dreamy time-warp effect. His attention to detail and extraordinary sense of finish also deliver an uncanny effect as though the works have some internal, self-aware intelligence. For better or worse, something about them is alive.
While many are deliciously evasive, Sideli’s sculptures are often easily accessible. One of my favorites, “Metropolis,” is little more than some well-experienced building blocks set like the architectural masses of a city.
Another example, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” features an ancient baseball on an inverted wooden cone sitting on a wooden ball that is perched on several more circularly symmetrical layers of age-polished, painted wood. The odd element is a very old, two-sided tin paddle jutting from the sculpture – a smiling face printed on one side with a frown on the other.
The faces remind us that fans will either be happy with a win or frustrated by a loss. The cone hints of game-time treats like ice cream. The overall symmetry makes this look like a trophy perched on a high pedestal.
“Alice’s Revenge” is a tiny red wooden cage holding the Queen of Hearts (an aged playing card vertically placed on a chess-piece base) on a checkerboard floor. Here the subject is easily recognizable, but we can only darkly imagine the ramifications.
Sideli’s “Color Theory” is a gorgeous piece of sculpture celebrating Marcel Duchamp, another Surrealistic ambassador. The work is set on a tall stool exactly like Duchamp’s found-object “Bicycle Wheel” of 1913. Above the stool is a globe painted into colored segments, vaguely echoing lines of latitude and longitude, and directly recalling the color theory squares of Duchamp’s last painting, “tu m’.”
“Ozone Layer” also features an old globe, but this time hanging in an antique brass birdcage stand. A cage has been built around the globe and suspended from an old wooden sun. Not only is this a spot-on bit of sculpture, but it also immediately struck me with at least a dozen interesting ways to interpret it (which is good).
Sideli is at his best working in a sculptural mode. His wall box “Hard Times for Jim Crow” and his freestanding “Invisible Man” are both excitingly creepy. The spatial presence of “Invisible Man,” however, makes it hauntingly fascinating: a blank, wooden face is attached to an oddly attenuated wooden doll’s chair with a shafted metal gear sitting on it – claiming the space in a way a picture never could.
Sideli’s work is the main event at Whitney, but it’s part of a three-artist show titled “Simple Complexities.” Sharing the main gallery with Sideli is a wall of drawings of oak leaves by Stephen Beneson. The drawings themselves are decent enough, but their grouped presentation is fantastic. The unframed drawings are mounted all over the wall, and together they feel like leaves floating down from a late autumn tree.
The back gallery features Jewel Rechsteiner’s minimal installation of light pencil drawings on white paper – much of it mounted directly on the white wall. It’s a wonderful installation, but similar to Beneson’s work, the whole is more satisfying than most of the individual works.
The exception, however, is Rechsteiner’s “Untroubled Mind,” which took my breath away. It’s like a faint pencil grid shimmering down from a section of a parabolic curve. It is a great piece of subtle minimalism. I certainly hope Rechsteiner continues in this direction.
One of the things I most admire about gallery owner Deb Whitney is that, using some of the sparest, quirkiest and most intellectual art around, her exhibitions are often the most handsome in town. Smart and great-looking, “Simple Complexities” is no exception. During an excellent month for art gallery shows, I enjoyed this above all others.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: