ARTIST Surdam Rayfish copy.jpg

NEW EYES - looking at Arden Surdam -

a conversation between W.M. Hunt and Efrem Zelony-Mindell,

Gallery ABXY, NYC, Summer 2019


You and I communicate with each other on a regular basis by exchanging images in a visual corps exquis *1We don’t get much of a chance to talk about our choices so let's take this opportunity to do that here.  

Start with the Arden Surdam’s still life with the bloody ray in it.  I like the mess.  The whole piece seems wonderfully off balance - no subtle Laura Letinsky sleight of hand here - this is much weirder and more desperate.  I like the hand that may be missing an index finger and the odd tart-like food stuffs on plates and the dripped blood.  Yum, huh?  The whole thing riffs on classic still life - nature morte - but there is something very whacked and contemporary here.  I liked it right away.  And this nature is definitely morte.  

The project’s title, “Offal” is off center too.  Are we looking at food or waste and does the artist wonder that this is “awful”?

For me the master of the photographic food portrait was Irving Penn, with Jan Groover as the master of the tabletop.  Ms. Surdam seems to acknowledge her predecessors here but is confident to go her own route.  I like the Penn-like wedge of roquefort in front of the clear plastic seamless and the oysters à la Groover on Mylar.  

It’s all well and good to talk about exploring “the gendered, classified, racially dissonant myths historically coded into our ideas about food” although I don’t know what that means.  Help me youth.

You know I am not being an art snob when I cite art historically valued artists like Laura Letinsky, Irving Penn and Jan Groover.  It is simply a way of describing work for others and to shake loose new thoughts in my own head.

Like a maraca, I rattle and bow to you.   


There's a boom in still life right now to push beyond the plausible and even the edible. Objects become lush and I get the urge looking at a lot of this work that I want to feel these things in my mouth but not necessarily swallow them. Surdam pushes the digestible to this place that starts to feel more like ritual. The consumable has become about the visual. Feeding ourselves with looking at the absurd until we are so satisfied that we can't have a single morsel more. 

Surdam does seem to have a very strong basis of history and theory for her work both visually and philosophically. I find myself thinking a lot about some of her contemporaries too like Maisie Cousins or Bobby Doherty. I often find myself wondering where the current push to make food and the edible more indignant came from. Surdam's works seem to break the rules of what is expected while welcoming in new forms of thoughtful macabre. We are, after all, the fruits of our insecurities and I think this work plays a lot on those desires to understand what's inside, literally.

I certainly am interested in digging a bit more into the "myths historically coded into our ideas about food." I think that is directly connected to what we're looking at here. I'm generally drawn to anything that smashes expectations. Frankly this work makes me think a lot about the work of William M. Harnett a late 19th Century trompe-l'œil painter whose still lives are often a little bit less than acceptable. In Surdam's work, like Harnett's, I linger on the places where things go awry. In this picture Picnic the line of vision is obscured by what looks like a sheet of frosted Plexi, that single tentacle of the squid branching out, like propagating lightning, brings the whole composition into itself. "What the hell is happening?" There is something very covetous here in the intimacy of the works call to understand. It becomes deeply personal. 


From Maisie Cousins and Bobby Doherty to William M. Hartnett, you dazzle me.  

The sensual appeal of this work is the visual.  It never occurred to me that anyone would muse about putting it in their mouth.  You are such sentient beast.  You are a synesthete!  As the song goes, you hear music but there’s no one there.  

Smell I can relate to because I imagine the food here to be foul - offal, remember -  unless this artist works very, very fast and this work seems very contemplative and not hasty.

Continuing to look at the work, I appreciate the density of the dark color in the works with caviar and liver.  The “Pig Independent Image” looks like a sandwich soaked in crankcase oil, impenetrably black and thick, definitely not food.   This repeats in one of the Irridescent (sic) images, #2.   

Best is the artist’s celebration of light as it bounces around in these images.  She spins the notion of how drapery should behave in classic still life, and the result is full of light. 

The Artist’s name, Arden Surdam, piqued my interest.  It works out as possibly meaning a silent Eden, a place of solitude and great beauty without sound.  Deaf beauty.  Not bad.

In her cv, there is mention of JoAn Callis as a former professor, and I was thinking of Callis when first seeing this work.   Callis has always been a sensualist, a seeming seeker of pleasure.  That and this work are redolent with female sexuality.  Callis’ iconic “Man at table, 1977" depicts the arm and left side of a man seated at a table covered with a white damask cloth with an enormous red wine stain, a loaded suggestion of the female presence.  Both of these artists like their fluids.

The insertions of candid photographs in the Surdam still lifes depict what?  At first I thought they were body parts, but they are apparently cut outs from cookbooks.  These show up in a number of the works and act like mirrors reflecting back upon the artist as if to make self portraits or little puncti.   They are unexpected and violate the notion of still life — as if there were rules governing what can or cannot be included.  They interupt the classic mode of drapery and food and blood.

Now you.  


Not only do I muse putting these things in my mouth but also one of the things I believe photography does so well is lust for the sensation of touch. Being two-dimensional the torture of seeing and imagining, but never being able to have is always present. I think about that a lot in these photos, that is something that deeply adds to the ceremony of Surdam’s photos in particular.

I’m drawn to the density as well; like in Seaweed 2 & 4.The lush combination of the drapery, smoke, and fire is so incredibly pleasurable. There is a great interview with another young contemporary artist Rachel Stern, in which she says, “Fire is decadent. Fire isn’t useful anymore in daily life.” It’s interesting to me to see how these seemingly archaic, if not obsolete, elements come together Surdam’s context. The musings of the offal and fire layered with found imagery speak to the sanctity of these seemingly new exorcisms of beauty and desire.


Like you I respond to the very basic elements in this work, its primal quality.  Surdam does touch all the senses except possibly touch although I suppose one is tempted to feel the surface of the print.  Intellectually she has done the homework; art historically she knows her stuff, slyly alluding to iconic Renaissance and Modern Art paintings.   I appreciate the left and right brain balance. 

Myth was referenced in our first correspondence.  The only mythological story I can think of at this point that seems appropriate to this work is Tantalus.  He boiled up parts of his son for the Olympian gods to feast on.  He got punished, and we got tantalize as a word.   It’s pretty fucking dark, but a swell mix of food and drink and life and death.

Arden seems to be a big fan of Proust.  That writer’s statement that the “real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes” feels relevant here.  

That is how she sees. 


WMH and EZ-M delight in collaborating.  Reacting and sharing their thoughts about Arden Surdam’s new work presented these writer-curators with a unique opportunity to do that. and  

*1 Corps exquis is a surrealist exercise.  “Cadavre exquis is similar to the old parlour game consequences – in which players write in turn on a sheet of paper, fold to conceal what they have written, and pass it on to the next player – but adapted so that parts of the body are drawn instead.  It was invented in 1925 in Paris by the surrealists Yves Tanguy, Jacques Prévert, André Breton and Marcel Duchamp. The name ‘cadavre exquis’ was derived from a phrase that resulted when they first played the game, ‘le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau’ (‘the exquisite corpse will drink the new wine’)”.

© W.M. Hunt & Efrem Zelony-Mindel 2019