Hunter S. Thompson may have made a strong case for Las Vegas as America's most hallucinogenic city, but I'd argue that Orlando is actually the capital of the United States of the Surreal. There's an inherent absurdism to a metropolis built around cartoon fantasy, where castles and condos share the city skyline. And the City Beautiful always seems especially unreal to me when tropical storms sweep across the Sunshine State. Combine the two and you have an oddly ideal environment for last Wednesday night's opening of Unreal: The Strange Imaginary Abstract Surreal Art Show at Dandelion Communitea Café.
When I arrived on Thornton Avenue about an hour into the opening reception for the vegan-friendly venue's latest art exhibition, heavy rain was hammering the neighborhood. But although Floridians usually flee indoors at the first raindrop, artist Eddie Fulcher was braving the elements under a makeshift tarp, attracting a small knot of sodden spectators as he demonstrated his chemistry-inspired painting performance technique, which involves using salt crystals to create 3-D effects and even lighting his paintings on fire.
Ducking into the dry environs of the homey teahouse, I discovered the interior was overflowing with patrons. As I tried to examine the artwork without disrupting people's dinners, I encountered curator Theresa Touhey in a crowded back room and asked her to fill me in on the exhibit's origins.
"I came up with the theme because I was asking artists who participated in the sci-fi show two months ago, and a couple said, 'We want something surreal,' and one said, 'Fantasy,'" Touhey told me. "The word 'unreal' hit my head, which encapsulates everything; I looked it up in the dictionary, and it said 'strange, dreamy' and things of that nature."
Touhey's call to artists prompted 33 participants to provide more than 60 pieces, which will be on public display at Dandelion through June 26. "It was pretty amazing, some of the stuff that came through and the different themes that people play with."
And if you detect a tonal difference between the displays in the two rear rooms, it's intentional: "When I started curating the show and the images were coming in, I noticed that some seemed really dreamy, and some seemed kind of nightmarish," Touhey said. "So I put things that seem a little darker [in the back left room], and more of the dreamy stuff in the blue room because it's lighter, just to give that cohesiveness to the show."
Some exhibit highlights that Touhey pointed out to me included "La Danse Persistante," Elizabeth Eleanor Davis' "hauntingly beautiful" portrait of a gas-masked ballerina ("That one spoke to me immediately when I saw it"); Scott Andrews' whimsical painting of animal musicians around a campfire ("His work is so meticulous. I really love his sense of humor and detail"); and the "phenomenal" pair of laser-cut wood sculptures framing pinhole camera prints that recent University of Florida BFA graduate Erica Sterling created as part of her senior project.
The most striking piece in Unreal's collection is Dominic DaSylva's monumental moth collage, which Touhey deems "incredible." He re-created Salvador Dalí's "The Human Skull" and incorporated it into a death's-head hawkmoth (as seen in the iconic Silence of the Lambs poster) using clippings from the "thousands and thousands" of recycled magazines that DaSylva says fill his home.
"Being a huge movie buff, I never saw anything done with it ... it was a morbid movie. I thought I could bring something beautiful into that," DaSylva explained when I asked about his inspiration. "Also, the nature of the European death's-head moth – we have that exact moth here [in Florida] without the death's-head [marking]." DaSylva's moth image is surrounded by words like "sophisticated," "recharge" and "elegance," which DaSylva feels connect to the Acherontia atropos essence.
If you missed out on participating in Unreal, keep your eye on facebook.com/dandelioncommunitea for the next call to artists. The July art show will be a showcase of seven or eight artists, and August will launch another two-month-long exhibit, potentially playing with the theme "macro/micro."
"I originally wanted to do landscapes, but three rooms of landscapes is kind of repetitive and boring," says Touhey. "I started thinking of Georgia O'Keeffe and going into something really deep or something really expansive. So I want to play with that contrast." Could one of your artworks end up being shown or sold at Dandelion? This is Orlando; stranger things have happened.