Interview: Jason Andreasen on the History of the Surreal Salon at Baton Rouge Gallery
It's been a staple here at Juxtapoz for years now, the coverage we have in association with the unique and pop-surreal showcase, the Surreal Salon. For going on 15 yeras now, Baton Rouge Gallery CEO Jason Andreasen has brought a particular vision of surrealism, fantasy, costume and friendly competition to Louisiana, where the Surreal Salon takes art from around the world with a guest judge to determine the "best of show" and, most importantly, to establish a new generation of pop-surreal painters. From judges like Liz McGrath, Ron English, Craola and this year's judge, Marco Mazzoni, Andreasen has created a special experience in the south.
Evan Pricco: It's amazing that it's been 15 years since the first Surreal Salon. If you were to build a linear line through them all, what do you think has made this so enduring?
Jason Andreasen: When we started, it was only intended to be a one-time, one-night event that was held offsite at a local space called The Ephemeral Gallery (which was really the workspace of local printmaker Kathryn Hunter and her husband, located in old partially burned-out warehouse). The thought was that we’d be able to create an event that would be exciting for artists while also getting a younger (under 30) audience in our area excited about art. We invited everyone to come out in costume, had a number of interactive elements for people to engage with, and two different bands on the bill. We lost money the first year, but we knew there was something special about the experience and the feedback we got. In its second year we opened it up to artists across the U.S., made it a month-long exhibition, and it took off from there.
I think the costume element to the Surreal Salon Soiree, which remains a constant 15 years later, has made Louisiana audiences really embrace it. We have a wonderfully strange predilection for costumes down here, be it for Mardi Gras, Halloween, or any other reason to turn into someone or something else for a night. It’s been cool to see that the college students we’d hoped would come to that first event are still coming and it has grown to welcome audiences of all ages too! As far as the art itself goes, I think it’s as simple as the sheer quality of works we’ve been able to share. It really is an exhibition that those in our area look forward to every year. But if you’d told me when we started Surreal Salon that we’d be moving into our 15th year having featured hundreds of artists from across the U.S. and the globe, I’d have checked to make sure you weren’t wearing some kind of toxic face paint that was messing with your brain.
And in a similar vein, how has it changed?
There’s the obvious things in that it has gone from a one-night event to a month-long exhibition. It went from being open only to Louisiana-based artists to being an opportunity for artists across the U.S., to eventually being open to artists worldwide (starting with Surreal Salon 10, juried by Ron English). There was the addition of prize monies ($2,000 will be awarded in 2023). The really special part for us, though, has been seeing the evolution of works being made by artists who submit for the show. We’ve seen almost every media imaginable and the fact that the show never has an expressed theme means it casts a wide net and makes for an exhibition that can be wonderfully dynamic each year.
What was the big breakthrough for the event?
I’d say there were two big breakthroughs for Surreal Salon (one for the annual Soiree and one for the exhibition itself) that helped it become what it is today. And both happened pretty close together. The first was when we hosted Surreal Salon 5. We’d tried for a few years to have The New Orleans Bingo! Show play the Surreal Salon Soiree. They combined elaborate and interactive vaudeville-like performances with some really fun, experimental music (using more than a few kids toys). They had clowns and burlesque dancers and multiple rounds of bingo played during each of their live shows. If you called out that you had “bingo,” you’d get brought up on stage and either be celebrated with a bouquet of flowers or beat over the head with them. They played the Soiree in 2013 and I think it really told people what kind of event we’d aim to bring to Baton Rouge every year. In the years since, we’ve had a “Japanese action comic punk” band, a band that played “Russian Mafia music,” puppet-fueled rock bands, and about a dozen different things in between. But I think the year New Orleans Bingo! Show set the stage for each of them.
The second turning point came when Greg Escalante, a co-founder of Juxtapoz, served as our Special Guest Juror for Surreal Salon 6. Our longtime partners at the LSU School of Art initially brought us together and we couldn’t be more grateful. Not only did he put together an incredible exhibition, but I think he had more fun than anyone here when he came to town for the Surreal Salon Soiree. He always said he had the best fried chicken of his life here (thanks to the Baton Rouge institution that is Chicken Shack) and I think that helped fuel his love for the show. When he went back to Los Angeles, and we didn’t know this ‘til years later, he started talking to many artists about his experience in Baton Rouge. We found out later that a big part of the reason that artists like Liz McGrath, Shag, and Greg ‘Craola’ Simkins signed on to serve as Jurors is because they’d talked with Escalante first.
Why do you think Baton Rouge is so open to the Surreal Salon and the Soiree each year? What makes the city so connected to this event?
The costume element of the Soiree is definitely part of it. We love a reason to get dressed up down here. We actually charge a slightly higher ticket price if you don’t come in costume! What’s great is that you very rarely see store-bought costumes, almost everything is handmade. So in a way, for this one night, Surreal Salon goes from having about 65 pieces of art to having 700+ pieces. Plus, the costumes serve as natural icebreakers, so you might see someone from a wealthier background or a totally different city striking up a conversation with a broke college student where they might not have normally had an opportunity or a reason to. In addition, while there are a few galleries and spaces within driving distance of Baton Rouge that show the kind of work you’d see at Surreal Salon, there aren’t a lot of opportunities to see such a large representation of pop-surrealist/lowbrow artists from all over the world, so I think our area gets really pumped about coming to see what art is up for any given year.
What have you noticed, in terms of style and approach, has changed in the art that is submitted each year?
As the show has evolved and grown, I’d definitely say the quality of the work has grown with it. It’s been really exciting to see familiar names of artists who were a part of Surreal Salon go on to show at some of the best galleries in world that focused on this kind of work. Each year is its own self-contained thing, though, which is always fun to watch take shape. One year we’ll notice a number of works have skulls in them or another year might have a lot of crows or cats, or some other recurring visual element. But I think the best part is seeing each juror put together a collection of works that brings together artists working in a number of different media to create a show that might be grotesque in one corner of the gallery, sweet in another, and hilarious in another.
And finally, you have had some amazing judges each year, and this year is no exception: Marco Mazzoni is a master. Why did you choose him and what do you think his eye will bring to the table this year?
Marco has kind of been on our dream-scenario shortlist for a number of years now. We’ve been incredibly fortunate to have some wildly talented people serve as jurors over the years, due in no small part to support from the LSU School of Art. Part of what I think makes the whole experience fun for the jurors and for those in our area is that the juror typically gets to visit with students at LSU and tour their studios. And Marco will be no different this time around. His use of color and his technically gorgeous renderings are something I think a lot of us have fallen in love with over the years. Plus, his ability to go back and forth between beautiful and haunting - or to live in both those worlds within one piece – made him someone we were eager to ask about guiding this year’s show. He’ll also be the show’s first juror not based inside the U.S. What was great about Marco is that we were nervous about asking and he seemed to jump at the idea, saying “Just feed me when I get to Louisiana!”
So, needless to say, there’s some good Cajun food in his future. Then we decided to press our luck and ask him if he’d reimagine the branding we use for the show and he did! He took the original cloud-faced woman character from the first Surreal Salon poster, which was designed by Scott Campbell (a local artist and graphic designer at the time), and gave it a whole new life that literally drew gasps from the staff here. We can’t wait to see what he does with the Surreal Salon exhibition itself.
Artists interested in being a part of this unique and exciting exhibition can find more information here. Artists working in all media are encouraged to submit up to three (3) works for the juror’s consideration. The deadline for submissions is October 27, 2022.