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The Push-Pull Between Surrealism and Abstraction at the Menil

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Mark Rothko. Jackson Pollock. They're not the usual suspects you'd associate with Surrealism, but they're some of the biggest names in the Menil Collection's current show "Late Surrealism."

Though they're known for their groundbreaking abstract work, as the Menil exhibition shows, pigeonholing artists can be tricky business. And during the 1930s and '40s, artists working in America were influenced by surrealists as the art capital shifted from Paris to New York.

Curator Michelle White has pulled together 14 artists and 26 pieces from the museum's holdings for the compact show. There are paintings, as well as collages, assemblages, works on paper and sculptures created during for the most part the '30s and '40s on display.

All together, the works demonstrate what White describes as a "push-pull" between Abstract Expressionism and Surrealism. It's in the mysterious figures in one of Pollock's paintings -- not one of his trademark splatter jobs, but one depicting animal-like monsters that are slightly nightmarish. Unnamed, this lack of any clue further adds to its mystery. This push-pull is also evident in Rothko's Red Abstract, a blood-red dreamscape comprised of figures that resemble birds and a spade.

Other works are strange and slightly goofy. Two Max Ernst sculptures -- standing bronze pieces -- both feature faces. In one, La plus belle (The Most Beautiful One), the eyes are slightly lopsided above a wide grin. In the other, Asperges de la lune (Lunar Asparagus), the face seems to be splintered -- the eyes on one pole, the mouth on the other. Joan Miró's Oeuf (galant ovale) also depicts a face -- this one curiously, humorously unhappy -- on a ceramic piece made convincingly to look like a rock.

There's more to admire -- pieces that primarily explore the human body in ink and charcoal that are all experimental in form -- in what's an eye-opening, fascinating show on a fascinating period.

"Late Surrealism" at the Menil Collection, 1533 Sul Ross Street, runs now through August 25. For more information, call 713-525-9400 or visit www.menil.org.

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