Man Ray - Human Equations

Shakespeare and equations … what do you think of that? It certainly has a ring to it even though, at first, the pairing of these two words, so unusually close to one another, results in cognitive strain. It doesn’t seem right and why would it? What do both these separate entities have to do with one another?
A lot if you introduce Man Ray, the American surrealist whose talents did him well among his European contemporaries during much of the twentieth century. When he was in Hollywood during the late forties, he came to create just that: Shakespearean Equations.
These were a series of paintings he made in response to a number of photographs he took in the thirties. The subjects of these images were nineteenth century mathematical models, which he later explored across a range of media. However, as is apparent, he wanted to explore further.
This preoccupation is the focus of an exhibition at The Phillips Gallery, which examines “the intersection of art and science that defined a significant component of modern art on both sides of the Atlantic”.
It is made up of an extraordinary range of work, including 70 photographs, 25 paintings eight readymades and 25 original mathematical models. The juxtaposition of these with Ray’s photographs and his Shakespearean Equations, creates a fascinating scene of curious imagery. What emerges, as the gallery notes, is his fascination with objects and what they mean in art and beyond.
“Although nearly every significant Man Ray exhibition since 1948 has included at least one of the Shakespearean Equations, no publication or exhibition has ever brought all three components together for an in-depth study,” noted exhibition curator Wendy Grossman.
“In fact, Man Ray never witnessed the triangle of mathematical object, photograph, and painting displayed as an ensemble. Placed in context with his other paintings, photographs, and objects, these works illustrate the artist’s proclivity to create art across media that objectifies the body and humanizes the object, transforming everyday materials into novel forms of creative expression.”
These works represent a real departure from a coherent narrative of surrealism. As the Washington Post’s art and architecture critic Philip Kennicott highlighted last month, Ray’s “celebration of the model” jarred with the rest of his fellow surrealists.
This was especially the case with Andre Breton, founding father of the movement, who saw this foray as a desertion of everything they were trying to do. He reasoned that surrealism was all about the unknown, the exploration of dreams and the subconscious.
Ray’s enthusiasm for objects were too rational and therefore grounded in a sense of reality. “Man Ray clearly felt otherwise, and much of the fascination of this exhibition is tracing how what one might call the ‘value added’ of art changed the meaning of models he represented,” wrote Mr Kennicott.
“Framing, lighting, the choice of background material, and the positioning of objects were the essential photographic tools for finessing the models into new photographic forms. With painting, Man Ray had at his disposal colour and texture, and endless opportunities to play games with shading, outline and subtle gradations of tonality. He also infused many of them with erotic suggestions, accentuating their fleshiness, organic curves and anatomical analogies.”
Man Ray – Human Equations: A Journey from Mathematics to Shakespeare at The Phillips Equation in Washington runs until May 10th, 2015.
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