Oldenburg lays ‘Strange Eggs’ at Menil

Review By Andy Coughlan

Claes Oldenburg is an odd bird and has laid some “Strange Eggs” over his career.

Strange Eggs X, 1957-58, Collage, mounted on cardboard, 10-15/16 x 14-3/16″
Collection of Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen

The Sweden-born American artist has gained fame though his playful interpretations of everyday objects, which he manipulates into large-scale, colorful public installations.

Now, the Menil Collection in Houston has hatched “Strange Eggs,” an exhibit of the artist’s early collages, in its surrealist galleries.

The 18 small pieces were constructed over a two-year period following his move from Chicago to New York in 1956.

It is fitting that the works hang in the Menil’s impressive Surrealist section. Oldenburg draws heavily on the playful collages of the earlier artists, with Max Ernst seeming to be the most influential.

While Ernst’s collages were recognizable juxtapositions of images, Oldenburg twists the images a step further, giving us pictures that suggest something without ever taking us all the way.

The source material is often unrecognizable, just textures culled from magazine photographs. Sure, we get a glimpse — a toe here, a feather there, and there’s a head that seems to be emerging from a cake, isn’t there? The orange, ah yes, there is definitely an orange.

But the source image is really irrelevant, as is the created amalgam.

Oldenburg invites us to make of the image what we will. And we will try. The nature of human curiosity, when faced with any sort of abstraction, is to try to make sense of what we see. It must “be” something, we think, and it is our job to find out what.

The images are clearly representational. It is a frog on a log, yet it isn’t. It is a mermaid seated on a rock, but it’s not. The people are people, yet not people, really. But we are confident they are meant to represent people — or maybe not.

Many of the images seem to explore the interplay of the binary; two shapes working together — or are they just randomly juxtaposed.

One of the “Strange Eggs” reminds me of my favorite joke:

Q. How many Surrealists does it take to change a light bulb?
A. Fish.

Maybe that’s Oldenburg’s point. Life is just a mixed up joke and it is up to us to make sense of it all — or not.

The Menil Collection is located at 1515 Sul Ross in Houston.

For more, visit www.menil.org.

ISSUE Magazine: December 2012