Nils Norman

Galerie Christian Nagel

The clear message of social and political critique once projected by Nils Norman’s work has become opaque in his latest computer-based pictures. Gone is the diagrammatic approach in which well-organized groups of images are directly accompanied by concise, often humorous texts elucidating the artist’s position on the urban environment’s present failings and future potential. His new ink-jet prints on coated Alu-Dibond panels are still generated with Illustrator, his preferred software program, but the pictorial elements now float, unmoored and relatively decontextualized, against lush red backgrounds. What once came across as an unequivocal assault on restrictive and misguided civic policies has become more playful and less didactic, almost poetic in its visual effect.

Despite the change of tactics, Norman’s customary references to protest culture are not absent. A recognizable narrative and spatial structure remain sufficiently intact to allow even the uninitiated some access to his cast of characters (evil politicians, beneficent ghosts from a revolutionary past) and scenery (architectural elements like benches, barricades, and kiosks). In Self-governing Anti-capitalist Info-kiosk Cluster Hub with Neo-liberal Avant Garde Working Conditions Study Centre and Archive, 2003, a pile of cobblestones and a row of police barriers hint at impending trouble while a tidy building resembling a tourist information booth stands in front of several billboards showing views of orderly public space. It’s as if the battles over capitalist development had been won by the neoliberals, followed by a second phase in which the signs of struggle have been turned into street decoration. Even Rudy Giuliani seems happy as depicted in another work, sitting at a bus stop reading a copy of Rosalyn Deutsche’s Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics. Dissent has been absorbed into the fabric of the city, blending in with the results of gentrification.

The contradictory implications can make it difficult to determine what exactly is at stake for Norman in this series. The formerly predominant textual content now appears only in the long, unwieldy titles. The comically dogmatic leftist language Norman has previously employed has been further exaggerated and satirized without concentrating on a particular object of ridicule. Even in Strategically Planted Temporary Viewing Garden with Dead Property Developer, 2003, which presents the most focused target in the series, the cartoonlike depiction of the businessman’s corpse softens the image’s critical bite. The title becomes a narrative crutch for the image, now reduced to a constellation of familiar motifs that have morphed into chaotic bursts of color.

It may be that Norman has only temporarily forsaken the overtly pragmatic orientation of his long-running proposals, one of which was shown here in the office. With its lucid suggestions for reorganizing a specific public site, Proposed Redevelopment of the Oval, Hackney, E2, London. Renamed: Let the Blood of the Private Property Developers Run Freely in the Streets of Hackney Playscape Complex A (Special Credit to Merlin Carpenter and Gallery Z), 2002, stands in marked contrast to the more recent works. Now the emphasis has shifted to a kind of rebus aesthetic, in which various visual clues must be read by a roving eye that actively pieces together a possible story, like panels from a comic strip rearranged into inventive formal configurations. They may be strong images in their own right, but the viewer could easily miss the joke. For the most part, however, they stay just this side of obscure while prompting an evaluation of their status as paintings, something that once might have seemed beyond Norman’s purview.

Gregory Williams