Leonora Carrington: As Above, So Below on Madison Avenue

Leonora Carrington, Quería ser pájaro, 1960. Oil on canvas, 47 x 35 1/2 inches (119 x 90.2 cm). Signed and dated l.l. "Leonora Carrington April 1960", en verso signed "Enrique Alvarez Felix/ 1960/ Leonora Carrington." Image courtesy Gallery Wendi Norris © Estate of Leonora Carrington / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Surrealism in Mexico presented by Di Donna Galleries (April 26 - June 28, 2019)

Leonora Carrington: The Story of the Last Egg presented by Gallery Wendi Norris Offsite (May 23 - June 29, 2019)


“Several large easels in the shape of swans or mermaids stood about here and there, like the skeletons of other things.” 

—Leonora Carrington, from The Complete Stories 

As if by actual miracle, paintings by Leonora Carrington are bilocating in the Upper East Side in two separate venues this June: Gallery Wendi Norris and Di Donna Galleries. Gallery Wendi Norris’s offsite space across the street from The Met Breuer is showing “The Story of the Last Egg,” New York’s first solo exhibition of Carrington in 22 years. Accompanied by the exhibition’s namesake “Opus Siniestrus” play reading and symposium, Carrington’s work is receiving careful and concentrated critical attention here. Just a few blocks south, Di Donna’s “Surrealism in Mexico” builds from disparate collections a tonic survey that includes paintings by luminaries Frida Kahlo, Remedios Varo, Carrington, the more obscure but in-step Alice Rahon, and others.  

Facial Mask [for the play Opus Siniestrus], 1976. Designed by Leonora Carrington. Crafted by Jane Stein and Vita Giorgi, mesh, acrylic, felt, cane, stamen, wood, and thread. 31 x 23 x 4 inches (78.7 x 58.4 x 10.2 cm). Collection TOLA Archive. Courtesy of Joanne Pottlitzer. Image courtesy Gallery Wendi Norris © 2019 Estate of Leonora Carrington /Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

A Dramatic Reading of “Opus Siniestrus: The Story of the Last Egg,” written by Carrington and directed by Jean Randich, was performed the evening of June 6 in the interim Gallery Wendi Norris. Dramaturgical equipment was temporarily erected beneath hanging masks of yarn and leather included in exhibition that Carrington ultimately designed for costume use in the performance. Both hilarious and harrowing, the wild world described in the play is simultaneously doomed by patriarchal forces and given the chance to restore itself. The conditions are dreamlike yet clear: there are no living females and only one ostrich egg remains on earth. This narrative labyrinth is not a skeleton key to the paintings (or vice versa) but, performed in the crowd of hung paintings, the performance enables ventriloquy and/or exorcism. The director’s note draws a bridge between the imaginaries of Leonora Carrington and Gertrude Stein that I will echo here: Carrington, too, utilizes the device of lifted rhyme and song to dig a temporal tunnel, summoning a divine chorus.

Leonora Carrington, Untitled [preliminary sketches for the play Opus Siniestrus], 1965. Oil on canvas, 34 3/5 x 58 7/10 inches (88 x 149 cm). Signed and dated l.l. "Leonora Carrington 1965." Image courtesy Gallery Wendi Norris © 2019 Estate of Leonora Carrington / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

In “Untitled [preliminary sketches for the play Opus Siniestrus]" (1965), Carrington illustrates the play’s situation: each entity rotates around a centered bonfire pit beneath a witchy, funnel-shaped cauldron where characters such as Hitler and Superman are boiled into stew in the play. The forms are oblong, lunar, and teeming with great pneuma. 

Leonora Carrington, Les Distractions de Dagobert, 1945. Signed Carrington and dated 1945 September (lower right). Tempera on Masonite, 74.9 by 86.7 cm (291⁄2 by 341⁄8 in.) Private Collection. Image courtesy of Di Donna

Like the ice fishing drawings of Greenlandic artist Kârale Andreassen, Carrington establishes a field of vision both above ground and below its surface. The effect is simultaneously lucid and subliminal. One Carrington painting at Di Donna titled “Les distractions de Dagobert” (1945) takes Merovingian king Dagobert I as its subject. What may be the German Alte Schloss (a castle built by Dagobert’s orders) is depicted in the top right, hosting several swaddled concubines who the king was known to keep. The radial, nocturnal kingdom beyond is simply mythic and liberating. Vacant islands of varied terrain loom over each frame inhabited with fauna such as a child guiding a spotted seahorse on wheels bearing a wizard-like figure in orange. A topless woman with the mane of a blonde urchin and a hood of birds plays a kite-like wind instrument; her arched left foot lifts a cluster of sea-bubbles, Aphrodite-like. The ambiguous figure of Dagobert (a patriarchal hedonist and monarch, yet nevertheless respected ruler in his time) rhymes with Carrington’s exploration of subjectivity as well as her investment in the medieval and Gothic.  

Leonora Carrington, Operation Wednesday, 1969. Oil and tempera on hardboard, 23 3/4 x 17 5/8 inches (60.3 x 44.8 cm). Signed l.l "Leonora Carrington March 1969"; inscribed 2 de octubre 1968...no olvides Tlatelolco...las tres culturas...no tenemos tumba...campo militar número 1 lower right; en verso: "March 1969 Dr. Fernando Ortiz Monasterio.” Image courtesy Gallery Wendi Norris  © 2019 Estate of Leonora Carrington /Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

“Operation Wednesday” (1969) at Gallery Wendi Norris depicts a more lyric scene that is just as double-edged. Carrington incorporates English and Spanish text and cross symbols into a hopscotch pattern on the ground beneath two sinister-seeming doctors performing an alchemical procedure on a veiled figure with one cherry eye. In a book opened on the diagonal, a skeleton writes with blood from the chest of a slayed bird: “WE HANGED / OUR HARPS / CARRIED / US.” Save for a opaque black portal or drain in the floor, each figure and object in this spiritual realm is transparent. The valence of the trickster doctor figures shifts when one reads the painting’s dedication to Dr. Fernando Ortiz Monasterio, who used his practice to aid victims of the 1968 Ttatelolco massacre in Mexico City. Carrington transcribes here a radical and political sympathy. The ghostly doctors function as guardians against circling vultures. Carrington believed a surreal treatment of the incident better represented the morbid absurdity of the event itself. Further, transformation occurs not only among forms in the work, but in the viewer’s perception.

Leonora Carrington, And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur!, 1953. Oil on canvas, 23 3/5 x 27 1/2 inches (60 x 70 cm). Signed l.l. "Leonora Carrington 1953." Image courtesy Gallery Wendi Norri © 2019 Estate of Leonora Carrington /Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The gnomic and occultist iconography of Leonora Carrington connects a threshold between two points in Upper Manhattan. These exhibitions are best experienced together. A dialogue may appear between, say, Gallery Wendi Norris’s “And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur!” (1953) and Di Donna’s “The Mother of Invention" (1950), both depicting domestic situations in which an inter-species combination of non-human mammals and humans appear to be learning metaphysical crafts in open-air chambers. At Di Donna, the paintings on display by Remedios Varo, Carrington’s beloved collaborator and star in her own right, suffuse a distinct, vital mist. And, as Hilma af Klint’s spiritual work was thoughtfully hosted in the spiral temple of the Guggenheim, Carrington’s mirrors her favored axiom: “As above, so below.”  WM


Cori Hutchinson

Cori Hutchinson is a poet, watercolorist, and library assistant living in Brooklyn. 

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