Consider reactions to 9/11, which was the big thing that went bump in the night and left many Americans in shock. A war against Iraq would make us happy, secure in our big victory. And of course it did -- for a few days. Even before 9/11, we fell for advertising's appeal to the child in us all, the allure of newer, bigger, shinier toys. Art also appeals to the child within, but from a somewhat different angle. In that vein, Michelle Muennig's paintings and drawings at Oestreicher meld dreamlike, visionary surrealism with the much older idioms of fairy tales and nursery rhymes.
A former New Orleanian now living and teaching art in Berkeley, Calif., Muennig's canvases reflect a kind of allegorical magic realism. The Blinding Brilliance of Truth is an oil painting of a young woman with her head turned away. She wears a diaphanous dress and holds a mirror in her hand. In its reflection her eye appears hugely magnified, so it stares back at us like a Cyclops. In the space around her, several gigantic diamonds seem to float, as big as footballs yet almost transparent, radiating rays of light from their facets. In the mists in the background appears the Hindu deity Hanuman, the monkey god of selfless service and devotion, only here the devotion is toward all that glitters, the huge yet elusive diamonds and the face in the mirror. The figure almost seems to dance, but this is the dance of maya -- illusion -- the image seems to say.
Muennig has always excelled in creating imagery that harks to the exotic, mysterious and archaic, and here that tendency is seen in works such as The Inherent Silence of Uncontrolled Laughter, in which some of those roly-poly clown toys that bob back up when you knock them over grin ominously and cast long shadows. A clown-like figure with a big, leering grin loses his head (it's attached by a long spring), while in the misty background spaces (her canvases appear as if painted with San Francisco fog), a disembodied clown grin floats beneath an All-Seeing Eye, amid strings of lights and fortune teller symbols. It's the rebellion of the toys, the law of unforeseen consequences in the circus of life.
An otherworldly carnival atmosphere suffuses these canvases, a whiff of antique sideshows and boardwalks to nowhere, forgotten toys in a haunted attic. Their dusky atmosphere is a liminal zone where anything can happen; the attic is the subconscious, perhaps the collective unconscious, and the toys are whatever we put there. With neglect, they morph and mutate over time, visiting us in our dreams, as we see in The Diamonds of Dream. Here some blissfully disembodied, hairless heads float in space. A mysterious hand parts equally mysterious curtains as the profile of a young woman becomes the profile of a rabbit. Above, a head of Fu Manchu gazes serenely over all, while in the background, the profile of a lady in a hoop skirt becomes Frankenstein's monster when seen as negative space. In the world of appearances, it all depends on your point of view. In The Impeded Laughter of Poverty a maniacally grinning toy clown stands on the precipice of a chasm. He's pulling out his empty pockets as more clown heads are ejected on springs from his hat, which opens like a lid. Beyond the chasm, roses bloom and diamonds glitter in the sky, out of reach.
As surrealism, Muennig's canvases take Joseph Cornell's props, with their sense of antiquated mystery, and reconfigure them into visionary tableaus, otherworldly operas. As allegories, they may speak the language of fairy tales and nursery rhymes -- children's stories once used to convey adult social and political messages in the days of tyrants and censorship -- but these beautifully painted canvasses are ultimately more like personalized tarot cards. Their allure is subjective, relying on the eyes, dreams and memories of the viewer for their meaning.