A touch of surreal wit

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ART has a profound respect for reality and truth - as well as a remarkable capacity for presenting them as allegory or myth, or dramatizing them as tragedy or comedy. This couldn't happen, of course, without the desire on the part of certain creative individuals to fashion meaning and beauty out of what they've seen, felt, and imagined. Or without these artists' ability to embody within symbolic form whatever is universal or generative in experience, sen-sibility, or thought.

Although it is usually discussed in rather high-sounding philosophical terms, this ability generally boils down to a clear perception of what is essential to the creation of a work of art and of how best to ``package'' and project that in light of the artist's overall objectives. Most major modernist art, from the paintings of van Gogh to the sculpture of Calder, was produced in this reductive fashion. Indeed, the term ``abstract art'' derives from the process of abstracting whatever was perceived as essential to art from that which was not.

There is, however, another approach that, for want of a better term, can be described as ``additive.'' Here, rather than reducing or distilling the image down to its ``essentials,'' the artist adds several layers and dimensions of data and meaning to a straightforward form or idea. Max Ernst and Salvador Dali became famous for creating complex, multidimensional works of art that defy literal interpretation.

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They do so because they were intended to provoke feelings of uncertainty and unease, to raise questions, and to instill doubts about things and ideas we normally take for granted. They were not created to give comfort or to induce serenity, but to startle the viewer out of his or her usual way of seeing and thinking about the issues and realities of life.

This approach, modified considerably by a desire to be mildly poetic or gently questioning rather than startling or shocking, is utilized by several excellent, independently minded contemporary painters, sculptors, and printmakers.

Their delightfully imaginative works are too lighthearted on the one hand to be genuinely surrealistic, and too serious on the other to be purely fanciful. They exist, as a result, in a kind of no man's land, appreciated by many but suffering somewhat because they cannot be categorized and thus judged and placed neatly in an appropriate niche.

Among the best of these is the Mexican artist Alfredo Castaneda, who was born in 1938 and who has exhibited internationally as well as in his native country. Although he was trained as an architect, little evidence of that discipline remains in his work, which is distinguished for its intriguing images of heavily bearded, often four-eyed men and Victorian ladies isolated in immense landscapes or in rooms that are either empty or contain very few items.

That description hardly does his paintings justice, however, for they are also exquisitely drawn, painted in a meticulous technique that permits both the illusion of reality and the suggestiveness of dreams, and that is about as simple as this kind of work can be.

They are also exceptional in that they are both ``tough'' and lyrical, both stylistically conservative and thematically open-ended. His major protagonist, the bearded gentleman, would be at home in any academic painting of the 19th century, and yet the context within which he is invariably placed stamps him a representative of late 20th-century issues and ideas.

Thus, in ``Offering,'' we are confronted by our bearded friend in a frontal portrait study that includes two sets of eyes, one set wide open and looking directly at the viewer, the other half-closed and looking down. The effect, although somewhat startling, is not disturbing, for we sense that the artist's intention was more witty than challenging and that this little bit of sensationalism was introduced to add an element of surreal ambiguity to an otherwise mildly fanciful image of a man.

The majority of Castaneda's pictures, however, are difficult to describe, for their point and meaning lie in their effect on us, not in a detailed accounting of what they contain. They are visual statements, not verbal ones, and so depend for their impact on complex interactions between coloristic, linear, textural, and tonal qualities and the various subjects and forms Castaneda employs. Most descriptions of his work, as a result, make as much sense as would a summary of ``Alice in Wonderland'' as a story of a girl, a white rabbit, and a mad royal court.

But, of course, Castaneda wants it that way - as indeed did Bosch, Goya, Redon, Ernst, and all the other artists of the past and present who prefer ``poetry'' over straight ``prose'' in their work. And I, for one, am grateful, for there are times when I appreciate a bit of mystery and enigma and don't want everything to be simple and obvious.

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