Radius Gallery co-owner Lisa Simon first had the idea for a surrealist group exhibition two years ago. The longer time passed, the more artists she found for a show, titled "Last Best Dream: Surrealism Here and Now."
The exhibition makes room for 16 local and Montana artists, working in media as diverse as sculptural ceramics, painting, collage, pen-and-ink and found objects whose work draws on the tradition dating back some 100 years now.
The initial germ for the exhibition came from the work of Courtney Blazon, a longtime Missoula illustrator and artist.
She's a pop surrealist, Simon said, "but a lot of people just think of her work as weird."
A Pratt Institute graduate, Blazon uses tight, intensely detailed line work in dream-like scenes that typically convey a historical or literary tale. She often juxtaposes the comfort of an illustrative style with graphic and startling but nonviolent imagery, such as bisected animals whose organs are exposed.
And so Blazon is a little bit misunderstood, Simon felt. She isn't making provocative work for shock value's sake.
"She's telling stories," she said. For "Last Best Dream," she created a large-scale drawing about the Donner Party. In another series, she told the stories of "Eccentric Royalty," such as King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who built the grand castles that influenced Disney and was a patron of the composer Richard Wagner.
"Surrealism has a message. It's saying something about how we think and how our minds work," she said.
"It's usually saying something about the imagination and our inner lives."
Simon, a former college instructor, taught the subject as part of literary modernism.
"I would start with the painters, because you can't understand the literary project until you understand what the painters were doing in surrealism," she said, and she can point out the surrealist techniques the artists exploit.
She and co-owner Jason Neal are sequencing the exhibition to begin with the first vein of surrealism, which values the unconscious as a truth-telling device. The show starts with narrative, dream-like diptychs from painter Stephanie Frostad and begins moving toward the second vein, which Simon said thrives on illogical juxtaposition.
Jennfier Eli French of Billings takes up a small wall with paintings that place animals in dignified Renaissance clothing, or sculptures of human heads with animal horns, or a sculpture of animal skulls decorated with soft, feathery imagery.
"You could read her work as a coming to consciousness of how we irrationally treat animals," Simon said.
Bayla Arietta's drawings of sentient humans inside the stomachs of sea animals, too, could be read that way as well, she said.
Other artists use surrealists' favored puns and word play to defy expectations, she noted.
Stephen Glueckert's pastel portrait, "Woman with Three Ears," actually has two sets of eyes, one on top of the other, and two mouths, but no visible ears.
The image toys with your natural instinct to make eye contact. After the initial glance, your eyes flit back and forth between the two sets of eyes, almost resulting in dizziness.
Theo Ellsworth's intricate drawings on woodcut blocks, often featuring endless rooms within rooms, are more fodder for thought.
"In the interpretation of dreams, the house is the unconscious," she said.
"Freud would've loved that," she said.
Ellsworth's preferred technique of automatic drawing also dates back to the surrealists.
"If you believe that there are deeper truths in your unconscious than cultural truths that you've been taught, then you want to get that filter out of the way so you can get to that deeper stuff," she said.
James Todd contributed a sequence of four prints, "The Fleas of War," each with with different title. ("Torture Flea," "Flea Angel," "Killer Flea," "Famine Flea.") Many of the renderings draw on bodily prosthetics, which Simon pointed out are a device that originated in the bloody and senseless World War I.
"The development of those, and so much of the early surrealists' work and dadaists' work showed people in crazy prosthetics," she said.
That war, which pushed Western rationality to the point of irrationality, spurred the surrealist movement to look toward other cultures and influences.
"Maybe rationality needs to be balanced with imagination," she said. "Then you get this illogical combinations of things that have a rightness to them, because you're seeking the imagination for a feeling, for a balance," she said.
As part of the show, she had some of the artists take part in a round of "Exquisite Corpse," a surrealist parlor game. A piece of paper is folded into thirds and given to a succession of three artists chosen at random. One draws the head, the next the torso, the third the legs. None can see what the other has drawn, creating an inevitably bizarre result. Five pieces by the participating artists will be on display.
The other exhibiting artists are Deighton Abrams, Crista Ann Ames, Adrian Arleo, Molly Blazon, Susan R. Carlson, Monte Dolack, Lillian Nelson, Wesley Saint John and Cathy Weber.