New York

Irving Norman

Alternative Museum

The fact that this show was organized at all is laudable. Whereas so much new art is a novice rendition of the familiar, Irving Norman’s paintings evince a genuine oddness that even exaggerates this art center’s identification as the “alternative” museum. Furthermore, this unknown artist is aged, not youthful; lives on the West Coast, not the East River; and secludes himself in a rural cottage outside a metropolitan art community. Nevertheless, he has gained the support of urban art professionals on both coasts, including the cocurators of this exhibition,writer and arts administrator Michael S. Bell and the Alternative Museum’s executive director, Gino Rodriguez.

Norman’s imagery does not evoke an individual’s solitary self-exploration but a misanthrope’s horror of civilization. Most of these nine large paintings from 1965–85 are crammed with tiny nudes whose spiritual debasement is reflected in their grimacing, howling, leering, or vacant faces. Funneling into urban business districts, trapped within the cellular windows of vehicles or high rises, embedded in stacks of gold coins in corporate boardrooms, or praying beside spouting oil rigs—in a multitude of miniscule anecdotes, Norman’s figures enact a nightmare of urban development. A related theme is the sci-fi disaster of Modern war, with enflamed flesh and 1,001 piled skulls or heaped bodies. The pallor of the paintings’ pastel-to-dark hues matches the spirit of demoralization.

Although hysterical in their exaggeration, Norman’s images are familiar. From the rustic countryside of Half Moon Bay, California, he has captured the daily grind of subway and street assaults in Manhattan. But he has not offered insights into these revulsions or sensory pleasure at their portrayal, nor has he challenged current lines of thought on life in the city or the life of art. The artist’s insularity is manifest in both his technique and his subject matter, anachronisms of classical illusionistic rendering and social realist fury. These dystopian repudiations of the rewards of technological progress may have been adventuresome 40 years ago, when Norman studied at the Art Students League, New York, with Reginald Marsh. Now they appear as caricatures of social realism—dated science fiction—since they depict urban and military threats we know more profoundly from living than from looking at art.

Norman wants to be an iconoclast, to break the ideal of industrial modernity But the fantasy of exponential technical growth (or of a winnable war) has been largely abandoned. What he hasn’t broken with entirely, or personally reformulated, are outmoded techniques of representation. The bleakness of his “Human Condition” (the exhibition’s theme) suggests sources in personal experience, yet the work doesn’t appear to draw upon a deep reserve of creative imagination. The imagery is too easily given, the rhetoric of the figures’ postures and facial expressions too obvious. Without the ambiguities of complexity, the compositions don’t entice decoding; they offer a reductive sign of a situation rather than a resonant symbol.

Norman can be praised for attempting to grapple with degenerating urban and military crises; his provocative failures demonstrate the difficulty for an artist to do so. The Alternative Museum deserves acclaim for taking a risk on a radical outsider, even though the exhibition revealed that neither eccentricity nor social commentary are enough.

Suzaan Boettger