at the Chicago Cultural Center, through December 30

Like most art of the 20th century, surrealism has its Achilles’ heel. Its typical strategies–plumbing dreams and the unconscious for themes and imagery, juxtaposing familiar images in unexpected, even irrational ways–can be devastatingly subversive, challenging our habits of mind and bringing to light unexamined fears and desires. Yet those same strategies sometimes result in frustrating inscrutability.

Detroit artist Ed Fraga–whose recent oil paintings are on view at the Chicago Cultural Center through December 30–can be called a surrealist, though his hotly colored reveries are more concerned with the workings of the heart than with those of the unconscious. Viewing his curious combinations of familiar and mysterious imagery is like following distinct, well-marked paths only to find them unexpectedly blocked. In some paintings the stops and starts and detours ultimately lead to profoundly spiritual territory, but in others we’re left stranded.

An image of serenity anchors the center of Key Cistern Dream #1 (1993): an unclothed man floats on an air mattress in a limpid, cerulean blue pool; a lush tropical landscape can be seen in the background. Whether asleep or just daydreaming, the solitary man looks completely relaxed.

But this pleasant image is only a tiny part of a larger, more somber whole. Most of Key Cistern Dream #1 is given over to an aerial view of a bed covered with wrinkled blue-black sheets and a pillow on which two red roses lie. A beveled chartreuse cross frames the central idyllic scene, glowing like neon against the dark sheets and accentuating the sharp contrast between the painting’s zones of light and darkness, joy and sorrow, life and death. The bed sheets are painted in a hyperrealistic manner (I overheard a visitor exclaim in surprise when he discovered they weren’t real), while the dreamy landscape receives a broader, less painstaking treatment, giving it the look of a remembered moment.

Though there’s no overt narrative in Key Cistern Dream #1, its core emotions are clearly expressed. Not every painting here achieves the same elusive combination of open-endedness and clarity. Caravaggio’s Dream (1992), for example, is something of a puzzle. A postcard reproduction of Caravaggio’s painting Bacchus is collaged into this striking diptych, which pairs a small landscape with a portrait of an androgynous figure wearing braids and what looks like Native American dress, but it’s impossible to discern how these images relate. The impassive figure, eyes ringed with dark circles, face glowing with a strange yellow-orange light, has no apparent thematic relation to either Bacchus or Caravaggio. And the title doesn’t help: in what way is this the dream of the Baroque painter who scandalized his Roman patrons by discarding classical idealism in favor of an intense naturalism and by picturing biblical figures as contemporary peasants and laborers? Perhaps this figure too is a peasant, but what is its relationship to the god of wine and fertility hovering over her shoulder, whose key identifying symbol, a full glass of wine, Fraga has painted over?

The tiny landscape in Caravaggio’s Dream, set into a larger piece of plywood stained white, is perplexing as well. Dominated by bright yellow green (which, as the color of spring and rejuvenation, might refer to Bacchus), it’s barren except for three small gumdroplike shapes and two reddish-brown tubes lying on the ground like abandoned pipes. It’s impossible to know what connection we’re meant to see between this unnatural, abstracted landscape and Caravaggio’s paintings, which are so rooted in physical reality, or his violent life (accounts of which include brawls, arrests, and the murder of a man in a dispute over a tennis score).

Numerous art-historical, mythical, and biblical references appear in Fraga’s paintings and, as in Caravaggio’s Dream, their purpose isn’t always clear. To Cielo o Infierno (“Heaven or Hell,” 1993), a small single-panel painting of a vast landscape scattered with odd cylindrical structures, Fraga has attached the figure of Eve (taken from an unidentified reproduction) and painted a blue halo around her head. A tiny wooden ladder leads from the sky-blue frame surrounding the landscape to the apple in Eve’s hand; Adam and the serpent are omitted. Is the viewer to take Adam’s place, to make a choice, as the title implies? Yet there’s nothing to choose but the unusual golden landscape, whose vaguely architectural forms look abandoned. In the end the painting sheds little light on either the biblical narrative of the fall of man or Fraga’s ideas about its relevance to the contemporary world.

The Flight of Icarus (1993), the largest work in the show, also gives a familiar myth unexpected treatment. In its left-hand panel an expressionless, life-size Icarus, wearing blue-and-violet-striped tights, stands poised between long red curtains at the foot of a golden staircase, the unlikely wings behind his shoulders looking like wood planks rather than feathers. In the right-hand panel, against a cheerful background of blue sky and white clouds, a bouquet of roses, irises, and lilies tumbles out of a circular opening in a crumpled length of yellow cloth. At first glance this diptych seems almost humorous: Icarus looks, if not unwilling, then at least not particularly anxious to begin his flight, and the strange combination of formulaic, cottony clouds and closely observed upside-down flowers is both awkward and exceptionally beautiful.

Placed on a pedestal between the two panels, however, is a carafe of red wine, and behind that, inscribed on the wall between two small black crosses, are the words “He who drinks of this blood shall never die yet may have eternal life.” These additional elements complicate and confuse matters. Daedalus and Icarus achieved the miraculous, though Icarus, in his youthful enthusiasm, ignored his father’s warnings and perished: how does this theme relate to the Christian sacrament of communion and belief in salvation through Christ? We’re again led through an intriguing collection of images but given too few clues to be able to connect them. Still, the all-too-human desire to transcend death is poignantly conveyed by the juxtaposition of painted flowers, forever frozen in their prime, and the physical reality of slowly evaporating and molding wine.

Fraga’s most compelling paintings, including Key Cistern Dream #1, are also his most personal. And, aside from Caravaggio’s Dream, it’s his unpopulated, invented landscapes that most effectively convey states of isolation, discomfort, and unrest. The central panel of a triptych titled Mi Corazon (1993) features a desertlike vista with low hills in the distance and in the foreground a mass of stylized vegetation–green and yellow palm fronds, tall spiky shapes like mother-in-law’s tongue, broad, distinctly veined leaves. Set among these is a strange, unidentifiable figure with a leaf for a head and a body of yellow and red tubelike shapes that recall a digestive tract: at once repulsive and fascinating, this solitary figure looks at one with its surroundings and yet uneasy.

Recalling some of Frida Kahlo’s paintings–in which exposed hearts with severed, bleeding veins symbolize emotional pain–the left panel of Mi Corazon, dominated by an acidic yellow, features a bust-length portrait of a bare-chested, bald young man. The veins of his haloed heart twine like vines around his neck; blood spurts from the heart toward his mouth. Two bands, one at each side of his head, bear the words “Mi corazon bleeds with love.” Yet the right panel features a sweet blue sky; floating together against its soft clouds are two red roses, from which a petal and two leaves carelessly fall: a wistful image of bliss. The trompe l’oeil magic of a second petal, painted as though it rests on the beveled ledge of the work’s thick frame, elicits gasps of delight from visitors.

Press materials say Fraga’s most recent paintings explore the issue of AIDS, and perhaps the blood in Mi Corazon and The Flight of Icarus somehow refers to the disease. But though the paintings speak generally of death and sorrow, they contain no overt references to AIDS. Too often the logic behind their imagery never fully materializes, and they remain trapped in a purgatory of unrealized intentions.

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