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AT WIT’S END

Adrian Norvid, Hermit Hamlet (detail), 2008, Flashe paint on paper, 10' 1/8“ × 16' 8”.

LIKE A SCARECROW, Adrian Norvid abhors a match. That’s because everything the British Canadian artist creates is made of paper. But if you are thinking Thomas Demand, think again: Norvid indulges his material of choice to celebrate the lowbrow history of everyday detritus with operatic gusto. From his dilapidated “knocking shop” to his shit-splattered outhouse, Norvid’s 3-D installations evince his faith in minimal means of production; these homely structures are supported by little more than handmade paper tabs and interlocking beams. With the exception of the biscuit tins, rubber chickens, squeaky hammers, and other sonorous trinkets that Norvid employs in the cacophonous, percussive performances that accompany his exhibitions, everything the artist wields can be set aflame in an instant.

Adrian Norvid, Shit House, 2013, Flashe paint on paper. Installation view, Galerie Clarke, Montreal, 2017. Photo: Paul Litherland.

Imminent catastrophe is integral to Norvid’s worldview, but the calamities he evokes are indisputably trivial. What does a burnt slice of toast or a doomed erection matter compared to the ravages of climate change and the global rise of fascism—concrete signs that we are charging to hell in a handbasket? And yet matter they do in the wall-size drawings the artist churns out in his Montreal studio. Is it because the losers who populate Norvid’s work are so small-minded that they cannot contemplate anything more than their own petty grievances and minor aggressions? Pot, tell that to the kettle. But what hope of transcending our egoistic limitations can we have when even the plastic bag we receive at the checkout counter is out to abuse us? (Instead of thanking you for shopping, Norvid’s rendering of this bag thanks you for shoplifting and eagerly anticipates your suffocation.)

To become familiar with Norvid’s imagination is not only to glimpse the world from his perspective but to suspect that words themselves are accomplices in our unmanning.

Of course, just because we are a cynical, small-minded lot obsessed with our own navels doesn’t mean that our delusions are any less grandiose. Norvid’s world-making ambitions are inextricable from his commitment to exposing life’s absurdity. With wit and ingenuity, he papers over our cruel reality with one that, though visibly no less vile, is at least attuned to its own ridiculousness. Combining large-format drawings with three-dimensional, illustrated paper structures whose interiors are stuffed with poster-size works, Norvid immerses the observer in his totalizing vision. Crammed with images, the aforementioned outhouse becomes a picture gallery and thus a place to dispose of both corporeal and cultural debris. While many of his structures are similarly inspired by the backwoods vernacular of shingles and shanties, his cosmos is more broadly composed of various regional—and fanciful—subcultures. Whether depicting a Vermont music festival, a traditional German house–cum–sleazy arcade, or the imaginary town of Fake Lake, whose preposterous goings-on the artist chronicles in an oversize newspaper, Norvid saturates the scene with quirky details. While his style is fairly consistent, the particularities diverge, plunging the viewer into the peculiar world of a given drawing’s inhabitants, dismal though it may be. Yet no matter the distinct geographies of these counterfeit locales, Norvid furnishes each with its own taxonomy, equally vulnerable to disorder and collapse.

Adrian Norvid, Shoplifting Bag, 2017, Flashe paint on paper, 44 × 30".

Drawing on an archive of dross that includes 1960s English comics, early fairground art, Georgian-era historical illustrations, ornamental fonts, rococo adornment, death metal, full-bottomed wigs, Nixon noses, plumbers’ cracks, and spindly boners, Norvid’s vision is so exhaustive in its abjection that it detonates any pretense of mastery or self-importance. Yet Norvid is, in fact, a master draftsperson (albeit of a comical rather than classical bent), as he occasionally, ironically reminds you. Whereas he makes no attempt to disguise his medium’s flatness or ephemerality, and deliberately leaves work in a state of incompletion—some images float on giant sheets of paper as if scaled to the pages of a tiny sketchbook—he tends to accompany even the most repugnant image with an outsize flourish.

Adrian Norvid, Hermit Hamlet, 2008, Flashe paint on paper, 10' 1/8“ × 16' 8”.

If the task of describing Norvid’s work invites a pileup of adjectives, it is because his work prods us—like a spindly boner—to categorize the nuances of our doomed existence. With a keen eye for satire and an unforgiving hand, Norvid has assembled a glossary of depravity ample enough to absorb even initially skeptical viewers like myself. In Hermit Hamlet, 2008, a staggeringly imaginative wall-size tableau, a disheveled group of ’70s hard-rock enthusiasts laze around a forsaken backcountry in different stages of torpor. A sign on a ramshackle porch advertises their varying ineptitudes: RECLUSE, FOOT LOOSE, SCREW LOOSE, NO USE. Trapped in this Southern Gothic scene like flies on flypaper—another favorite motif of the artist—the characters are as obsolete as the instruments they wield. PERMANENTLY UNHINGED (as a sign on a broken door declares), the only thing they haven’t given up on is the music—although even these aspirations are upstaged by an explosive fart. Parsing the tired myths of hillbilly culture, Norvid comes up with as many images of the oaf as the Eskimos have words for snow. Yet it is clear that the artist empathizes with the defunct dreams of this band of doppelgängers; with his brush, Flashe paint, and scissors, he is as blissfully stuck in his own analog world as they are in theirs. As the license plate of a nearby pickup truck implores, HAVE MERCY.

Masculinity is Norvid’s target, as is any pretense of bourgeois respectability or commodification of the unruly art object.

Florid, rancid, and meticulously hand-lettered, such insertions of language play a central role in Norvid’s fabrications and caricatures. To become familiar with Norvid’s imagination is thus not only to glimpse the world from his perspective but to suspect that words themselves are accomplices in our unmanning. Through an off-putting combination of incompetent rhymes, inexcusable puns, and blunt tautologies—THE DEVIL’S ASS IS FULL OF GAS OR I’M OFF IN MY COFFIN—Norvid affirms not the eloquence of the vernacular but its delightful vulgarity.

Adrian Norvid, Soft Serve Penitentiary, 2017, Flashe paint on paper, 9 × 25'.

It may seem as though Norvid’s cosmology is scatology—there is, after all, a preponderance of feces-obsessed flies, as well as the aptly named The Little Black Bumhole Opera—and yet his work is too concerned with man’s humanity to remain completely mired in shit. Nor is misogyny its driving force, in spite of his crushing talent for capturing sagging breasts or gaping hags. Make no bones about it: Masculinity is Norvid’s target, as is any pretense of bourgeois respectability or commodification of the unruly art object. As the consummate underdog who recognizes the asinine nature of all forms of seduction and ambition, Norvid is well equipped to expose the delusions of manhood festering in the margins. Mocking traditionally masculine ideals of sexual prowess and self-importance, he nonetheless identifies with the pathetic insecurities of the slackers, dropouts, and no-goodniks who populate his tableaux. Although his work avoids ideological critique—who is more self-important than the crusader?—it is clear that his sympathies are with the downtrodden. No matter how beleaguered his characters, Norvid elaborates a world in which some sense of fraternity persists, even if only in the rec room of the penitentiary.

Norvid’s pubescent pontifications fly in the face of the clever ironies that seduce the art world, with its world-weary predilections.

In this politically polarized culture, it is notable that Norvid refuses party distinctions: His drawings caricature the long-haired hippies at a commune as savagely as the horny hillbillies who may have voted for Donald Trump. Nonetheless, like that of comic artist R. Crumb, Norvid’s approach is not without affection, and leaves room for surprising glimpses of other sensibilities. A recent work, created during a German residency, depicts an Orwellian prison in which the guards are portly farm animals and the prisoners wait anxiously for—what else?—the appearance of Kate Bush. As a draftsperson, Norvid is drawn to the anachronistic textures of folk culture in spite of—or because of—its political incorrectness. Who can blame him if he is as intrigued by the weave of the basket as he is by its content of deplorables?

Adrian Norvid, Shit House (detail), 2013, Flashe paint on paper, 114 1/8 × 50 × 50".

Mining the contrast between the ineptitude of their jokes and the intense embroidery of their patterns and textures, Norvid’s drawings inspire wonder at how anyone could put such effort into making something so idiotic. “I am interested in how a cheap joke functions in too grand or ornate a frame,” he has explained. “Find me a subject that stinks as a subject but stinks in a particularly odiferous way.” Yet there is more to his gags than their stench. Inspired by a democratizing ethos in which even terrible jokes are suitable raw material, Norvid’s pubescent pontifications fly in the face of the clever ironies that seduce the art world, with its world-weary predilections. Refusing to instrumentalize play as yet another way of being taken seriously, Norvid instead insults the viewer’s intelligence. His limp witticisms question not only what remains impermissible but also what kinds of assumptions—about class, education, and access—undergird our comic preferences.

Adrian Norvid, Hermit Hamlet (detail), 2008, Flashe paint on paper, 10' 1/8“ × 16' 8”.

Norvid’s brilliance concerning the inadequacy of humor as a form of salvation comes through most perversely in his performances. Situated amid one of his ornately illustrated installations, he costumes himself as one of his alter egos (Lord Muck, Herr Krank, or Mr. Fizz) in an intricately decorated lab coat and a wig. As in his own delirious image of a mock Handel operating a ’70s-era modular synthesizer, Norvid combines anachronistic technologies to wreak audiovisual havoc. Trained in avant-garde musical composition, he employs an assortment of small synthesizers, looping pedals, and homemade noisemakers to improvise an Opus Chokeus that is a hot mess of musique concrète and vaudeville variety. During an event for his recent show “The Bejesus” at Concordia University’s FOFA Gallery in Montreal, Norvid unraveled a seemingly endless list of numbers before a mortified coterie. In one of the most memorable, The Battle of Everclunk, the artist created an exquisite trompe l’oeil of a kilt that is gradually blasted by cannonballs until it all but disappears; in keeping with his preferred means, both the tartan and the holes were nothing more than collaged bits of paper. Channeling the mischievous ghosts of Kurt Weill, doom metal, and Fluxus, Norvid accompanied the performance with fragments of pure sound that concretized the illusion of the kilt’s dissolution. By treating the visual and the acoustic as absurdly analogous fields—a rubber chicken provides an existential scream for a beleaguered body whose guts splatter into a surprisingly handsome pile—Norvid thumbs his nose at the solemnity of durational performance, whose mundane artifacts seem destined for galleries full of dull videos and vitrines. His performances preserve the pretense, or the threat, that something truly bizarre might happen—and then wearily concede that it probably won’t. Each title—A Minute of Terrible Torpor, I Become Unaccustomedly Quiet and Then Noisy Again, Coughing and Throat Clearing—succinctly evokes the preposterous expectations and bitter disappointments not only of art-world spectatorship but of life itself.

Ara Osterweil is a painter, writer, and associate professor of cultural studies at Mcgill University in Montreal.