Persistence of Memory

Kortz is another old-timer, and I’ve been seeing his work around town for years now.

Dirk Kortz, "The Explanation," oil on canvas

“THE MIND WILL ALWAYS MAKE ASSOCIATIONS OF SOME KIND. IT WANTS MEANING.” So says Dirk Kortz, the artist whose surrealist paintings were on exhibition at Wheelhouse Art this past October. The new kid in town, Wheelhouse is in the Railyard, around the corner from the Jean Cocteau Cinema, and is the result of a partnership between two veterans of the Santa Fe art world, Joyce Stolaroff and Scott Chambers. Welcome to the biz, you two!

Kortz is another old-timer, and I’ve been seeing his work around town for years now. I gather that he tends to work in series, always in his signature, mostly realist vein; figurative work usually rendered in a style that leans toward the illustrative, with references to comic-book graphics of the mid-twentieth century. In this series, Kortz pays worshipful tribute to Salvador Dalí’s legendary arrangement of melting watches, complete with a crude—possibly sexualized—self-portrait, and ants marching to the beat of corruption and decay. According to the Web site of the famous painting’s keeper, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Dalí painted "The Persistence of Memory" (1931) with what he called “‘the most imperialist fury of precision,’ but only, he said, ‘to systematize confusion and thus to help discredit completely the world of reality.’”

Surrealism, arguably the offspring of psychoanalysis and Dada, generally encompassed two modes: amorphous, organic shapes associated with the occult practice of automatic writing (think of André Masson and Joan Miró), and a trompe l’oeil style that belied the underpinnings of reality (Max Ernst, Dorothea Tanning, René Magritte). Both modes symbolized the realm of the subconscious. Both made a mess of meaning. 

Kortz’s artwork shares with the Surrealists a denial of ready access to interpretation. His jumbles of dream-like images, with their signposts of the past, beg for explanation. However, as he posits, “my intention was to make them as purely visual as possible while still using representational images, to create a kind of mysterious resonance between images that cannot be associated in a literal way. The more the associations bypass explanation, the better.” Boy, do they bypass explanation! It’s almost maddening, by and large in a good way. 

The best works in the show, in my opinion, follow the densely packed visual style of the lotería card in a satisfying composition packed with colorful and arbitrary symbols. The giclée, "Persistence of Memory," consists of gridded squares six images across and six down and really brings home the lotería motif. Anything and everything, it seems, is fodder for Kortz’s paintings: Buddha, birds, a woman dancing with a man, magic mushrooms, a white cat, a man working on an old car, the Botero-like figure of a swimming man in red trunks and goggles, more birds, dolls and clowns, a ballerina, a Frisbeecatching dog, cowboys, pieces of machinery, apes, a body builder. All of them hint at the kind of excitement of danger and action a little boy might have found in Saturday-morning cartoons during the 1950s and 60s. One may suppose, from his ironically retro imagery, that Kortz was that boy. My one complaint with this work is that its emphasis on that retro-hipness gets to feeling rather formulaic and forced. I can’t help but wonder how a painting by him with its iconography set in the present would come across.

In person, I was quite fascinated by the atypically simple composition of "I Dreamed I Was Young Again." A horizontally bifurcated canvas with Hokusai’s wave topped by a bevy of brunette women in their little black dresses, many of the ladies wearing pearls, the picture was strangely compelling. Maybe I just like Hokusai. Maybe it was the juxtaposition of a direct reference to classical Japanese art with women from the Junior League that hooked me; I remain stumped. And intrigued.

"The Explanation" is perhaps the best indicator of what this exhibition looked like. Despite the title, the painting defies reason, explication, or rationalization. In fact, precisely because it is so nonsensical, the viewer stares at each image within the picture, certain that there is a connection between the dunce-capped, dismayed man at its center and the surrounding images. Triumphant fishermen pull in the world’s biggest trout while a couple fox trots. A red-breasted, black-winged bird seems ready to warble happily, while the comicstrip woman in the lower right corner laughs derisively. The grisaille background of jagged mountain peaks is balanced by a foreground straight out of Arches National Park. Are these snapshots of the artist’s past? Memories of a nightmare? An existential crisis that just won’t quit? The problem with, and the strength of, this painting is that it just won’t resolve on an overt level. I like that in my art.