COLUMBUS, Ohio — Perhaps the most initially astonishing thing about American Surrealist artist Honoré Sharrer (1920–2009) is the fact that so few people have heard of her. Though she received some acclaim as a young painter, Sharrer faded from public view early in her career, eclipsed by the prevailing trend of Abstract Expressionism and forced to move to Canada in the mid 1950s because of her outspoken Communist beliefs. If those factors weren’t enough to condemn Sharrer to a life outside the spotlight, there was also the endlessly damning circumstance of her being a witty, talented, strong-minded woman in pursuit of her own vision. She was dogged in her convictions and a master of her medium.
A Dangerous Woman: Subversion and Surrealism in the Art of Honoré Sharrer at the Columbus Museum of Art (CMA) is the first survey since the mid 20th century of the artist’s works, many of which are on loan from her estate. Walking through this reconstruction of her decades-long career, what stands out the most is the progression of her subject matter and style. Sharrer seems to have simultaneously possessed the ability to emulate other painters and to express her own singular perspective. Some of her early portraits demonstrate an interest in and aptitude for the techniques of the Northern Renaissance masters; later works evoke Norman Rockwell’s razor-sharp observations of quotidian American life (not to mention the similar struggles he faced, due to radical politics). Still later, Sharrer presents a Surrealist worldview that would be perfectly at home alongside the work of Gertrude Abercrombie.
The pinnacle of Sharrer’s public success came early, with the five-panel “Tribute to the American Working People,” which she made in 1946–51 for her first solo exhibition, at the Knoedler Gallery in New York. The intricate series, which features day-in-the-life scenes of midcentury rural America, received strong praise from New York Times critic Stuart Preston. As a West Coast native and Detroit transplant, I have had perhaps above-average exposure to the famed Diego and Frida, and “Tribute to the American Working People” startled me as a perfect conglomeration of the two. Sharrer shares Rivera’s muralist eye and Communist leanings, packing each panel with extraordinary microcosms that elevate members of the working class at labor and play. But the scale, painstaking execution, and obsessive richness of every brushstroke is pure Kahlo.
A master of many styles even by this early point in her career, Sharrer was a fan of embedding paintings within paintings. These mini-masterpieces serve as both literal references to her influences and demonstrations of her skill in imitating the work of other artists. In some cases, the small paintings can be taken as part and parcel of Sharrer’s exhaustively detailed settings, but their centrality and recurrence suggest that they held extra significance for her, reflecting something about the personalities of the occupants of her scenes.
The 1943 piece “Workers and Paintings” is a panoramic portrait of several family-like groups standing in front of a detailed cityscape. Each unit presents a painting to the viewer, including Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” Picasso’s “Girl before a Mirror,” and a Diego Rivera portrait of field workers. All of the featured painters sought to elevate the common people, both in their work and their politics, and Sharrer’s piece conveys the lovely sentiment of art having a place within the structure of the family.
“Reception” (1958) features François Boucher’s “Jupiter in the Guise of Diana, and the Nymph Callisto” and a second, more obscured image, both of which show mythical rape scenes as they hang high on salmon-colored walls above a lavish gathering. The work represents Sharrer’s transition from celebrating the life of the common worker to exposing the abuses of the rich and politically powerful. Those milling around the reception include US Senator Joseph McCarthy — whose political machinations were directly responsible for Sharrer’s exile — FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, and Cardinal Francis Spellman. Opposite Spellman is the only other figure in colorful attire, who’s also located on the same foreground plane as him: a young woman in a pink ball gown with a reflective attitude. Separated from the rest of the reception by a banquet table, this figure seems to be a likely stand-in for the artist, who at that point in her career was already experiencing the alienation to which most confrontational women can relate.
The eye is drawn around “Reception” by the rich details of the partygoers below, an ornate crystal chandelier above, and the surreal presence of live birds roosting atop the lighting fixture and on people’s heads. But the entire middle of the painting consists of the empty space of the background wall. There is a real oddity to Sharrer’s compositions — the horizon is often pushed awkwardly high or low, defying the rule of thirds at every turn. Her knack for extraordinary detail and inclusion of eye-catching and surreal elements force the viewer’s gaze to move everywhere — there are no simple pathways through her work. Sharrer draws the viewer into a complicated visual conversation; perhaps it is projection to note that complexity is another quality rarely championed in women. There’s nowhere for the eye to rest in her paintings; they require exceptionally active viewing and, like most “difficult” women, refuse to let the viewer off easily.
At the onset of the 1960s, Sharrer adopted some Pop art elements in her work, while continuing to cultivate her surreal subject matter. At this point, a clear visual vocabulary emerges: lap dogs, melting cutlery, lit cigarettes, and cuts of meat form a recurring motif of dreamlike symbolism, in landscapes inhabited by circus folk, mythical creatures (Leda, of swan fame, is a regular), solemn children, and round-faced, nude, frankly unapologetic women who gaze directly at the viewer.
Sharrer kept painting up until her death in 2009, and the exhibition includes decade upon decade of works that show her continuing to develop and refine her themes: grappling with womanhood, waitressing, divorce, religion, and family life in a way that feels deeply personal and also relatable. One could spend a great deal of time unpacking the symbolic language, political and artistic satire, and feminist sentiment of Sharrer’s work — just ask M. Melissa Wolfe, who co–curated the retrospective for CMA (with Robert Cozzolino) and, in so doing, became a scholar of record on Sharrer.
Indeed, the galleries featuring her later work — which seems only to gain layers of refinement, both in terms of style and acerbic, absurdist humor — offer activities that get at this depth. One table offers a copy of a painting rendered in jigsaw puzzle form, a perfect medium for Sharrer’s thoroughly packed images. Standing before it, I mused that the time it would take to assemble the 750-piece puzzle seemed about as long as would be necessary to get a grasp on the work itself. The hours Sharrer spent on each painting seem to transfer directly to the viewing experience.
Another station, in the furthest reach of the exhibition, offers an opportunity for visitors to respond to a question: “Why do you think Honoré Sharrer was a dangerous woman?” The responses I saw ranged from “She was a communist” to commentary on her subject matter and perspective, with Post-it notes piling up to create cross talk and conversation; some observations were as simple as, “Dogs, dogs, everywhere.” Taken as a whole, the simple answer might be: Sharrer was thought-provoking and difficult, and her art is too. That’s disruptive for people who seek to deny women the full complexity of their human condition. All the more reason to seize the opportunity to visit this remarkable exhibition and acquaint oneself with its subject — a truly unusual painter and largely unsung visionary whose time may have finally come.
A Dangerous Woman: Subversion and Surrealism in the Art of Honoré Sharrer continues at the Columbus Museum of Art (480 East Broad Street, Columbus, Ohio) through May 21.
Editor’s note: A portion of the author’s travel expenses were paid for by Experience Columbus.