The Surreal Art of Gerald Slota
A Discomforting Strangeness
Edited and arranged by Robert Friedman
The first, mesmerizing images of Gerald Slota's that I saw may have been those depicting children in the New York Times Magazine in the 1990s 1. A full-page photograph of a child on the cover of the magazine accompanied by the words Disturbed, detached, unreachable provided a heartrending illustration of the plight of the tragically "disconnected"—Eastern European orphans suffering from "severe parental deprivation," adopted by well-intentioned but almost entirely unprepared American couples. Gerald Slota's cover photo was resolutely unmelodramatic and unsensational—a minimalist nightmare depicting the blurred image of a child so entrapped in terror, or in rage, his mouth is a distorted O as if he were screaming in utter silence.
Very different in technique, yet similarly mesmerizing and disturbing, were vividly colored artworks of Slota's accompanying a subsequent article for the magazine in September 2008 by Jennifer Egan investigating the plight of children suffering from bipolar disorder and their equally suffering, stoic parents 2.
The bleak black-and-white of the Eastern European orphans had been replaced by bright primary colors that belied the deeper sobriety of the subject: the fractured minds of children for whom increasingly powerful psychotropic drugs are being prescribed, with what eventual side effects no one seems to know.
In contrast to the guarded optimism of the prose piece, Slota's impressionistic/surreal images of isolated children and attendant, if not enslaved, parents provided an unnerving commentary.
There is no reason. All is utter mystery, in which we are trapped like figures in a dream.
Woe to the mere writer whose words appear alongside the artist's visceral yet dreamlike works of surpassing beauty and unease! We read and nod Yes, this is quite reasonable; we stare at Gerald Slota's intransigent art and think But no. There is no reason. All is utter mystery, in which we are trapped like figures in a dream.
A nostalgia of violence
Whether original photographs, works of inspired bricolage, or photograph negatives of strangers upon which the artist has worked a sinister magic, Gerald Slota's art suggests a nostalgia of violence.
The images are radical incursions into "reality," the suggestion—resistant in many people even in the wake of psychoanalytic theory and all that twentieth-century history has revealed of the deeply self-destructive, partial-sighted if not "mad," depths of the human unconscious—that the "real" is ever shifting and beyond our conscious control; like figures in artworks created by strangers, our lives are subject to the interpretations, even the manipulations, of these strangers.
The images are radical incursions into "reality."
An art of nostalgia
Slota's appropriation of old negatives yields an art of nostalgia—at first glance; deeper contemplation of the images makes us think of a vanishing America of family albums, sepia snapshots, tabloid sensations, police crime photos and mug shots.
We think too of the "old, weird America" commemorated by Harry Smith in his Anthology (1952)—a rural America of obscure feuds, love gone wrong, unsolved murders, and inestimable loss commemorated in folktales, ballads, and that exquisite commingling of sorrow, melancholy, and swift bright manic rhythms in bluegrass music. Slota's female images suggest sunnier visions of Hans Bellmer's ghastly broken sex-dolls, as his male or androgynous figures, usually facing the viewer, in the flatness of a single dimension, suggest the mock-human figures of René Magritte.
In a trio of images there is a suggestion of restraint-straps? a straitjacket? (Is the restrained individual a child?—the image is purposefully smudged.) And there is an ominous, empty chair, the very incarnation of absence. Like his similarly gifted contemporary Robert Gober, Slota has so appropriated the seemingly familiar objects of everyday life, so suffused them with a discomforting strangeness, we are led to stare at such objects/images in the futile hope of understanding them. "Surrealism" means a "sur"—heightened, exaggerated, hypercharged—realism, yet there is a kind of surrealism, practiced by both Gober and Slota, that is minimalist in strategy.
Gerald Slota's art is finally a collaborative art with his viewers.
Yet: our human imagination so yearns to fill in these quick snaps of arrested narrative, we so yearn for meaning in even the most obviously chaotic setting, Gerald Slota's art is finally a collaborative art with his viewers, like the work of such surrealist artists as Man Ray, Lee Miller, Max Ernst, and our American collage-master of dollhouse-sized mysteries, Joseph Cornell. Slota's art resists even as it teases us with the possibility of a coherent narrative; like a mirage ever retreating to the horizon, such art is tantalizing and elusive.
Among Slota's most gripping photographs are family album snapshots of strangers rendered in subdued, twilit tones, upon which someone (the pathologist/anatomist/artist) has scribbled cryptic yet childlike outlines. In some of the photos it looks as if this floating, transcendent observer has drawn lines of kinship to connect individuals who appear otherwise unrelated, except for their physical proximity. In some, there are ghostly umbilical cords connecting individuals; in others, scribbled-out faces belie the pert posturing of the body.
Other images—a small ghost figure crossing a tightrope over churning blood-tinged water as a cutout figure looks on impassively; the wall of a building that looks as if it has exploded outward, in a very pretty bright-turquoise hue; the torso and bare legs of a girl magically floating above a perky little dog and his mirror image, the scribbled-out face of a girl posed on the lawn of a bland suburban house, from the series ominously titled Found—suggest a disparity between the "objective" and the radically subjective.
We "see" the image and recognize it, despite distortions, as a representation of something once vivid, living, and "real"; yet, more crucially, we "feel" the image as if it were already a part of us, evoked by Slota's mesmerizing art.
In Slota's acclaimed collaboration with the playwright Neil LaBute, Home Sweet Home (2011), terse, microcosmic narratives by LaBute provide enigmatic captions for storybook illustrations of an uncanny nature: "my parents died in the fire I set. only the twins escaped. they come to visit me once a year on my birthday." In this triumphant and unsettling project in particular, Slota's vivid, insouciant colors are in striking contrast to the prevailing theme of dysfunction, loss, and incomprehension. For these are not ennobled tragic victims whose suffering has been mitigated, to a degree, by wisdom but merely victims, of whom most have lost their identity (that is, their very faces have been smudged, blurred, or scribbled over). It is significant that Slota's human figures appear, for all the violence of their (inferred) narratives, frozen in time; both embalmed in memory and, in our imaginations, yearning to break free and to live once again.
This essay originally appeared as the introduction to Gerald Slota’s collection, “Story,” which was published in 2012 by S.F. Camerawork Publications in association with the exhibition Gerald Slota: Story (September 7 to October 27, 2012).
For more information about Gerald Slota and his work, please see his website.