For years we have been covering the Baton Rouge Gallery’s Surreal Salon, the annual exhibition and juried competition that celebrates the pop-surrealist/lowbrow movement, For the 15th edition of the Surreal Salon, BRG enlisted Italian artist Marco Mazzoni as the guest judge, which led to a “Best in Show” nod for painter Micah Ofstedahl and his work, Seeing Anew. We sat down with Micah to talk about his work, the winning piece, and altered states of reality.
Evan Pricco: Let’s talk about your subject matter, a subtle sort of surrealism that is based on the natural world and these quite realistic landscape paintings. How did growing up in Minnesota influence this development in style?
Micah Ofstedahl: It’s hard to say how much, and in what way, growing up in Minnesota has influenced my current style. Some of my earliest paintings, which came a few years after leaving Minnesota, had some nods to the vast, flat landscape. One of which, titled “Slice of Home”, was based on a cross-section of the layers of skin turned into a sort of surreal landscape. The hair follicles on the surface were arranged into uniform rows which reminded me of the cornfields I grew up around. It wasn’t intentional, but may have subconsciously arose from the familiar landscapes. I will also say that my upbringing in Minnesota was conducive to creativity. Maybe it’s the long, cold winters that keep one inside. I also had creative musical friends and influential high school art teachers. My college years were also spent in southern Minnesota where I started to develop a style, but with sculpture, ceramics, and drawing, rather than painting. The landscapes of my recent work are more directly inspired by my current home area in southern Oregon as well as from travels. However, the landscape itself serves as more of a backdrop for the surreal or mystical elements that I incorporate into the scene. Those have been inspired by various biological forms, patterns in nature, or an imaginative concoction from the subconscious.
I lived in Santa Cruz for years, and that move for you was a detour of sorts, where you went into music. Then you went back to painting. Did you learn anything in these transitions, both in locale and medium, that helped your painting?
I hadn’t done much painting before moving to Santa Cruz, and certainly hadn’t developed a style. I had played around with various mediums such as ceramic, wood, and plaster sculpture, and a lot of drawing. In looking back at that work I can see how it later informed my painting. For example, I started getting more creative with my figure drawings by taking bits and pieces of the figure that stood out to me and placing them on the paper somewhat randomly and connecting them with my own creative elements. This process continued in a way when I later picked up the paints. During my first few years in Santa Cruz I mostly took a break from visual arts to play music and work a full time day job at a frame shop. It wasn’t all that often that I framed up some inspiring art, but I did get exposure to the work of Mars-1 through prints as well as some original M.C. Escher lithographs, so that may have been enough to keep the flame going. I’m sure I was also inspired by the change of scenery from Minnesota. I tried to get outside as much as possible into the redwood forests and beaches, and that likely has influenced my work in some way, even if it’s just through a greater appreciation for nature. The direct inspiration early on, however, came from a Grey’s Anatomy book, and soon after, the biological illustrations of Ernst Haeckel, of which I came across while living in Santa Cruz. I was intentionally looking for some sort of inspiration because the band had stopped and I wanted to paint, but really had no idea where to start or what the outcome would be.
If you could describe your art in one sentence, what would you say?
Realistic representations of observable reality altered by invisible mysteries of life made visible.
(Best in Show work, Seeing Anew, acrylic on canvas)
Tell me about, one, the thrill of winning this year’s Surreal Salon, and also, the story behind the winning painting itself?
I was absolutely thrilled and surprised when I got that phone call. It was my first time getting into the Surreal Salon, so that was an honor in and of itself, but to get that kind of recognition or validation is very special, and winning a prize is not something I have experienced very often. The piece itself, called “Seeing Anew”, is based on a southern Oregon landscape with a glassy orb inspired by an Ernst Haeckel illustration of a siphonophore. The pattern sort of looks like a bunch of eyes which also reminded me of some of Alex Grey’s paintings of repeating eyes. I ended up arranging them in a sphere to represent a higher awareness and seeing things from various angles and seeing them anew, hence the title.
It’s always fun to be recognized by your peers and other artists. Winning an award isn’t always the end game, but what can you learn about entering and winning Best in Show?
It’s a great reminder and motivator to keep trying, as cliche as it sounds. As you said, it’s not the end game but can be a confidence boost or a little push. There are so many other artists who are just as deserving of the award, including some who didn’t even get into that particular show. There’s so much subjectivity when judging art, so whether it’s a win or a loss, I just have to keep painting and putting it out there.
What’s next and on the horizon for you?
As far as upcoming shows, I have a solo show at Ryan Joseph Gallery in Denver in August. I also have some group shows on the horizon at Arch Enemy Arts in Philadelphia and my first museum experience at the Museum of the Southwest in the Fall of 2024. As far as the work is considered, I don’t have any big changes planned but I will continue to evolve and I always stay open to new ideas. I had a change in direction a few years ago, so something like that could happen again.
Learn more about Surreal Salon 15 here.