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Dreamwork: An Exhibition

By Francis V. O’Connor, Ph.D., Art Historian

This is a review of the “Dreamwork” art exhibition at the Center for Modern Psychoanalytic Studies in New York City, May 9 – September 10, 2009. The review includes an appreciation of the “Dream Art” of Maria Taveras.

Dreams evolve in three stages. First there is the event observed when sleeping. Second is the dreamer’s effort to transcribe (and inevitably interpret) the observed event into words — or as in this exhibition — images. Third comes the dreamer’s free associations with the event under the guidance of a psychotherapist. Freud called this three-part process “dreamwork.” The curators of this exhibition, Steven Poser and Frederika Stjame, describe these second-stage efforts to image dreams “not merely illustrations of the dreams but enactments of the dreamwork.”

The paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs in this show, held at the Center for Modern Psychoanalytic Studies (May 9 – September 10, 2009), are stylistically various and aesthetically. Nevertheless, these works offer much food for thought about the idea of an “unconscious,” and the processes available for making its contents manifest. Three works provide an insight into such unconscious content.

Ken Morgan’s “My Room #2 (2004 – ink on paper, 12 x 9 inches), which the curators have deftly chosen as their show’s logo, displays three walls of a room with a black floor. The left wall has two small, open doors, the far wall of one such door, and the right wall none. Dominating the work is a white form within which are small squares, circles, and dashes that connects to the first three doors. It could be interpreted as (a) a pinball machine game, (b) a road map, and (c) a human body — this last being the most evocative in respect to unconscious content. It has six appendages sprouting from a long center “body.” In the right corner are two short ones that could be eyes on stalks indicating a head. To their left is a long “arm” that leads to the first door in the left wall. At the far end of the body two “legs” touch the two other doors. Another, much shorter appendage emerges from between them and touches the bottom of the right wall, where there is no door. There is no right “arm.” While this work is open to a variety of interpretations, the title limits this splayed humanoid image notionally to its creator, and situations of reaching out and sexual frustration adduce unconscious frustration.

Noa Bornstein’s sculpture “Dream of the White and Black Bird” (2007 – bronze and wood, 57 x 29 x 3 inches) depicts two wing-like shapes on a staff. It is installed in front of Barbara Stout’s drawing “Night Flight” (2009 – ink and watercolor on paper, 8 x 6 inches), which reveals a bird-like figure flying off a pedestal. Its body is a winged bowl and its head leaps up from the bowl with two sets of eyes and two horns emerging from a frazzle of hair. Flight is a primordial aspiration of humans for transcendence — which is why so many spiritual beings (like angels) have wings. A standard-issue dream is that of flying. Bornstein’s work is hieratic and formal; something to bang on the floor for order at a convention of psychoanalysts. Stout’s is a bit ditzy — as if something guilty is to be happily escaped. Only more third-stage work with the instigating dreams would reveal the unconscious etiology.

When I first noticed Maria Taveras’s statue “Serpent Handling Woman” (2007 – bonded bronze, 19 x 12.5 x 6 inches), I saw it as the most stylistically conservative object in the show: a beautiful young woman kneeling amid the coils of a python — and holding its head and its tail in her hands. My art historian’s internal slide projector (I was born pre-PowerPoint), conjured Edvard Munch’s painting “Puberty” (1894-95) — a portrait of a young woman, sitting naked on her bed, her hands between her knees, in a state of amazed terror at the dawning of her sexuality. Taveras’s elegantly-crafted young woman had a similar expression of innocent amazement.

Then the artist gave me a statement about the sculpture that dramatically changed such a Freudian interpretation. It turned out that Taveras is in the final stages of certification as a Jungian analyst, and that the work was one of a number of dreams (ultimately turned into sculptures) she had had after visiting the Jung Institute in Zurich twenty years ago—all featuring women and serpents—and that in some of these dreams and in others later, the serpents were winged, or were coming out of her mouth.

There is perhaps no symbol more multivalent that the snake, that on one level seems to threatening (and often is), that shuffles off its coil of skin yearly, whose image has become entwined on the caduceus of Hermes (now the universal sign of healing), and whose winged format is familiar in the Mexican god Quetzalcoatl – to give just a few examples of an image capable of innumerable amplifications. Not that this work’s title, “Serpent Handling Woman,” has the woman in the power of the serpent — so my Freudian perception was not all that wrong. But from a Jungian perspective, such a symbol-complex would not deal just with sexuality, but with the woman’s evolving relation to nature, and the serpent’s relation to far-reaching ideas such as flying (as already mentioned), and uniquely female phenomena of fecundity, such as periodicity and parturition.

But Maria Taveras was the only artist present to offer a stage-three insight into her work—and her approach to creativity—by augmenting the show’s catalogue with her own statement concerning her “active imagination” — to use the Jungian term for what the Freudians would call “free association” and the Surrealists “psychic automatism.” Indeed, these three historical methods of engendering images that can be amplified by psychodynamic approaches to the unconscious, have often seemed to me the only legitimate way to make a true work of art. Contemporary stuff has lost its sense of the numinous for an avid taste for numismatics; in truth it has lost its soul, as any trip down the permanent collection galleries at the Museum of Modern Art will demonstrate. So a little show like this, under the auspices of the Center for Modern Psychoanalytic Studies and our more adventurous soul-healers, is to be welcomed.