In this magic trick, the doors of a box open, revealing a simple pair of dice. Then they shut. When they open again, a menagerie of reptiles, birds, and insects spills out of the tiny chamber.

The magician is artist Ellen Lanyon. The trick is a painting called Super Diebox Production.

Lanyon’s paintings and drawings, like good magic tricks, combine seemingly unrelated objects and illustrate improbable occurrences. Her surrealistic content and visual style could accompany the stories of Lewis Carroll or Frank Baum. Most critics group Lanyon with the Chicago imagists, artists who use ordinary objects and meticulous detail to explore fantasy.

The subjects of her work are often animals and domestic objects, such as trays, boxes, and bowls. Giant insects emerge from unlikely containers, sometimes from miniature houses. In Bomarzo Cascade, the stone cliffs of a waterfall take the shape of fish while real fish watch from below. In Black Lacquered Flight, a piano flies.

These perplexingly dissimilar objects found their way into her work at different stages in her artistic development. Although Lanyon says “there aren’t distinct divisions” between the stages, she can give a rough time line:

Early in her career (she graduated from the Art Institute in 1948), she began using memorabilia–old family photographs, catalogs of “ready-built” houses, boxes and curios of all sorts–as her subject matter. She experimented for a while with people but gravitated eventually to houses, which pulled more strongly at her memory. Lanyon grew up in Chicago–first on the south side, then on the north–and remembers the residences that used to line North Sheridan Road before the high rises. “Chicago architecture is so distinctive,” she says. “I wanted to document that.” Small but detailed renderings of these houses often supplement the body of her paintings; they’re like footnotes.

Next she started to collect books on magic. She became fascinated with tricks, with the way magicians can make doves and rabbits materialize out of inanimate objects. “I got into the notion of transformation,” Lanyon says. She combined animals and objects “to create an illusion for the audience.”

“Then I got interested in the magic of nature,” she says. After a trip to the Everglades in the mid-70s, her inventory of subject matter expanded to include a wide variety of reptiles, birds, and insects, and she started to collect stuffed birds and other animals.

Animals also began intruding on her collection of kitschy porcelain curios. A china tobacco jar was the basis for the fish wearing a waistcoat and chewing on a cigar in Strange Games at the Lagoon (Lincoln Park). Its mate, a waistcoated frog with a pipe, served as model for Strange Games at the Lagoon (the West).

Animals became valuable to Lanyon for their symbolic value. “The cicada,” she says, giving an example, “is beneath the earth for 17 years and then emerges.” In Lanyon’s Cicada, the bug emerges from the earth through a house.

Paintings like Cicada, along with some of Lanyon’s other paintings of houses, have led some critics to question whether she is making fun of her midwestern roots or celebrating them. “I don’t think consciously I ever had rebellion in mind,” she says. “The motivation is preservation.”

Former Village Voice art critic Lucy Lippard has written that Lanyon’s domestic subject matter makes her a feminist painter, because her work suggests “miracles can be accomplished with lowly housewares.” Critic Donald Kuspit supposes that Lanyon’s images of animals spilling out of boxes and bowls connote “the female power to give birth.” But Lanyon says her work isn’t meant to make a political statement. “If the message is there, fine, but I did not want to make it the prime condition of the work.”

She maintains that most of her works are essentially still lifes of objects she owns. The New York City apartment where she now lives houses five glass cases full of Chinese lacquered music boxes, spool boxes, china shaped like fruit and vegetables, and the like. There are also her collections of magic books, photographs, and stuffed animals that will not fit in the cases.

Surrealism, she explains, requires a reliance on realism. “If you don’t have the reality to create the metaphor, it doesn’t make sense,” she says. “The realism makes possible the metaphysical extension.”

Then Lanyon makes the claim that a magician might, on explaining his craft to an apprentice: “It isn’t as mysterious as it seems.”

Ellen Lanyon: A Retrospective opens tomorrow, January 23, at the Chicago Public Library Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, and runs through March 19; viewing hours are 9 to 7 Monday through Thursday, 9 to 6 Friday, and 9 to 5 Saturday. On March 9 at 5:30, Lanyon will give a slide lecture on her recent work. For more info, call 346-3278.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.