“The flesh is at the heart of the world.” Philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible
It seems so obvious to say that we are our bodies. In every sense of what that means: philosophically, physically, emotionally, or psychologically…it is true. I am my heart, my lungs, my brain; and these vital organs that sustain me also generate and contain my sympathies, my dreams, my fears. Encased in plump flesh, my very existence, my heart of the world, is because of my body, and to deny its power to transcend that beyond just its physical being devastates the hope of ever truly understanding the human condition. So it is here, where the body becomes its own idol and teacher and vessel: to be respected and celebrated and understood that I find the extraordinary work of Chicago artist Bruno Surdo in his current exhibition: Allegories.
Inspired by the Renaissance and Baroque masters and classically trained in Italy and the US, Surdo is consumed by the human form. He rigorously pursues perfection in his meticulous depiction of the body; a sculpted collar bone, a protruding tummy, each soft inner thigh is rendered with palpable confidence and accuracy. But don’t mistake this precision for a pursuit of the perfect or idealized form, because it isn’t. He seeks out models with character, figures with physical distinctions, things that make them special. For Surdo, these are what truly matter, these are the identifiers of what lurks within his beautifully rendered figures. This inner language, how the exterior expresses the experiences captured within the interior, is the exact dialogue Surdo mines for and so masterfully presents.
At the end of a long hallway in the gallery hangs Shadows, an atmospheric, dramatic scene of a lone, nude woman viewed from behind as she is bathed in shadow in front of a slightly ajar window. It is captivating. Through delicate application and deftly built layers of color, Surdo achieves a beautiful softness to her body and neutralizes the overt eroticism traditionally associated with depictions of nude figures. Decidedly voyeuristic yet un-fetishized, the moment captured in the work feels natural, private, and familiar. Aesthetically referencing the quiet, intimate interiors of Vermeer and Hammershoi, the intoxicatingly dark space surrounding the hypnotic figure, with its overwhelming verticality, appears to multiply and reach beyond my sight; yet, at the same time, it remains contentedly contained within the textured black walls. Compounding his exploration of dualities, Surdo conceptually offers an assaulting range of emotions: oscillating between hope and loss, bravery and fear, timidity and boldness. It is a poignant depiction of the notion of intimacy; and, yet I am there, in that room, feeling the need to make some kind of confession. It is precisely this acute ability to evoke such a visceral response from me that allows Surdo’s paintings to transform beyond just portraits or figures into rich, allegorical narratives exploring fragility, being, and expression.
There are two, massive ensemble paintings included in the show, L’Atelier and Realm of Fantasy, both of which illustrate Surdo’s keen ability to flaunt his deep, traditional abilities but from a modern perspective. While the nude is considered both historical and universal, it is the use of particular clothing (in this case costumes) which adds the contemporary context by giving it a time to reside in. From a Vegas showgirl to Wonder Woman, the artist (depicted behind the large canvas on the right) presents a veritable smorgasbord of his salon, bookended by opposite ends of physical spectrum – a casual, corpulent, nude, female bunny on the left and a posed, svelte, nude, male, Roman Legionnaire on the right in L'Atelier. There is a lot to maneuver visually; however, Surdo flawlessly organizes the composition and controls the movement so that it directs me to the one character that makes eye contact. With an indirect gaze hidden halfway behind a pair of sunglasses, the freedom-loving, peace-signing hippie just to the left of center becomes my escort and invites me into the painting. Curiously, this character that is so brazenly daring me to follow him down the rabbit hole into this seemingly outlandish scene is the artist himself. L’Atelier reflects the world where the artist resides, but also the one he creates – both of which are ripe for self-discovery.
Realm of Fantasy, depicts a peculiar cast of ten figures placed upon a solid black abyss, each wearing a distinctive costume/façade and each in a contorted position ranging from subtle to strange to visually uncomfortable. Though unruly, Surdo has placed thoughtful pauses – textured resting points for my mind to catch up with my eyes: the clown’s look of confused interruption; the brunette’s rosy cheeks; the blinding, white, left side of the unicorn’s head; and the furred brow of the afro-clad man bleeding beyond the far right edge. As I literally walked the length of this painting, slowly moving left to right, the mixture of who and what appears familiar (normal even) intermingled with what might be imaginary hovering in darkness dares me to consider my definitions of fantasy and reality and the blurred line between the two. More so, I can’t help but feel that this work, adjacent to the portrait of the artist on my left, is meant to serve as a portrait of me (the viewer). I walk backwards and start again. Each character is distinctive and identifiable, displaying specific attitudes in specific clothing, and expressing intense emotions that I have felt and/or experienced: confusion, joy, surprise, cynicism. This melting pot of masculine and feminine, of serious and ridiculous, of real and pretend, all manifest into the playfully dressed woman in the center masquerading (if only from the neck up) as the mythical and fantastical unicorn. Whether each character, then, is meant to represent the other or instead, additional facets of the self; Surdo presents an incredible opportunity to surrender to the unknown either way.
Allegories, as an exhibition, overwhelmed me from the first painting until the last, and even as I was exiting the show – I found myself grasping my own wrist to feel and experience the soft give of my own muscles and resistance of hard bone. Surdo affirms the power of the body, whether nude or clothed, to convey both the struggle and the beauty of living within our own skin – the beautiful, beautiful flesh indeed.