When German art critic Franz Roh (1890-1965) first applied the term “magical realism” to visual art in 1925, he was designating a style of visual art that was anchored in everyday reality, but had overtones of fantasy or wonder.
“Recent magic realism exceeds mere overtones of the fantastic or surreal to depict the essence of magical reality, reflecting the uncertainty of everyday life,” says printmaker Leslie Golomb, who organized “Reimagining Magical Realism — A Look Beyond the Fantastic,” an exhibit of artworks by six contemporary female artists that opened recently at FrameHouse’s Jask Gallery, located at the Ice House in Lawrence-ville.
As visitors to the exhibit will see, many of the works connect to Utopian-inspired tales emphasizing manifestations of feminism and social transformation.
Here, for example, Jacqueline Barnes, a recent bachelor of fine arts student of Carnegie Mellon University, unveils her first printed comic book, “Anamnesis,” self-published under the title PhantaNoir comics. Barnes created PhantaNoir to delve into the population of black fantasy fans that she believes has long been “ignored, debased or derided.”
“My work stems from a need to see black protagonists in fantasy settings and explore the limits of what makes something a fantasy,” says Barnes, who lives in Montclair, N.J.
In her comics, characters like “Anamnesis” and “BeToken” fit into the show despite their overtly fantastical elements. “As for the magical realism aspect of it, despite the worlds my stories take place in, black people and coded (marginalized) individuals are still very much set in the world of the “real” — they aren’t meant to be magical,” Barnes says. “They push and pull against what our society tells us is realistic and what is fantastical.”
Celeste Neuhaus of Bloomfield says her work in this show relates to the theme of magical realism because “my work is about transformation, and magic is a transformative force.”
In works like “night water night sky,” which comprises two panels, both 2 feet by 2 feet by 2 inches, you’ll find crepe paper, melted birthday candles, wrapping paper, sand, glitter, glass beads and prismatic vinyl, all of which make up something that, at first glance, appears minimalist and simple.
Instead of working with depictions or representations of the mundane, as seen in traditional magical realism, it is the materials in Neuhaus’ work that are mundane. “But, because they are used in celebrations as the objects of ritual (such as birthday candles), they have a relationship to magic, and the way that I reconfigure and re-contextualize the materials is an act of transformation,” the artist says.
The work of Jennifer Nagle Myers lies between self-portraiture and portraiture, drawing and sculpture, fiction and nonfiction.
“Magical realism enters my practice in myriad ways, mostly by giving voice to ideas and concepts that I am inventing, but that are based on research, readings and study of what is happening to our earth and the living bodies at this moment in time and throughout all of our planet’s history and herstory,” says the artist, who lives in Polish Hill.
For example, her piece “Monkey and Bear, Back to Back, II” is from an ongoing collection of new figurative works made of painted slate she calls “I Eye Witnesses.”
“I understand these invented figurative bodies to embody the risk, terror, beauty and collapse that all living systems and creatures are currently experiencing as the new normal on a rapidly changing planet,” says Nagle Myers. “I consider myself a herstorian, and this is part of a herstorian’s research and body of work.
“The figures are always female and represent a collection of hybrid species: half human, half other, all animal. Working with slate connects me to the earth body, as it is a material of the earth body.”
Katie Kaplan, who was born and raised in Pittsburgh but lives and works in Philadelphia, shows several relief prints that she has highlighted with hand-painted accents, such as “Clover Moon,” which is filled with floral motifs, a female figure, moon and a rabbit.
“This print is about healing, self care and femme identity,” Kaplan explains. “The central figure, whose head is tossed back in both agony and ecstasy, exists in a magical world of floral, decorative symbols, that contain references to herbal healing, art history and mythology.”
For Kaplan, whose printmaking work heavily includes allegory, fantasy, re-imagined art historical references, occult and religious symbolism as well as personal narrative, the connection to magical realism is rather congruous.
“Magical realism is indicated here in a way in which the figure’s needs and dreams are manifested through the accompanying symbolism,” she says.
Then there’s the work of Cleveland artist Liz Maugans, whose “Desperate Signs” series represents the anguish of Americans who have lost their industry and jobs. In works like “Just Aint Sitting Right,” which has just those words in neon embedded in a found cushion, and “Hospital Bed,” a woodcut relief, Maugans mines the collective American psyche of the moment.
“All the text in the ‘Desperate Signs’ series are from Craigslist posts,” Maugans explains. “The word ‘desperate’ was entered into the search engine. The message that came up was not altered in any way and was carved into a piece of found wood and printed onto paper.”
Investigating the space between the private and the public has been a consistent strategy in Maugans’ practice, and using signs and neon allows these amplifications to occur.
Maugans is quick to point out that many of these works were created following the recession of 2008. “My dedication to giving these discarded, abandoned objects another journey was also part of my intention.”
“Regardless of whether the objects were illusional or physical, the text elevated them to a magical intimated manifestation of desire or loss, and this was the tension I wanted to reveal in this work.”
Kurt Shaw is the Tribune-Review art critic. Reach him at email@example.com.