Over the past few years ETSU art students have experienced growing opportunities to investigate various mediums and artistic genres, though the options available have long been quite eclectic: paper-making, encaustic painting, weaving, lithography, bookmaking, digital and film photography, dyeing, various firing techniques for ceramics, and so on. (The challenge I found at ETSU was narrowing my focus enough to fulfill a “concentration”, which I’ve heard many other students and alumni in the arts comment on similarly.) Sound, performance, and installation art has been creeping in as well.
If I am correct, Taylor Norris’ Where I Was Found painting and installation exhibition in the SUBmarine Gallery, an entirely student focused exhibition space on campus, came about because of a class that she’s taking at ETSU. Whether all the students will have mini-exhibitions as part of the class, I’m not sure, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Norris simply made enough cohesive work to merit a small exhibition. She seems fairly prolific and highly interested in experimentation. (Update: I have been informed that students can sign up for the space and scheduling is on a first come, first-served basis.)
Joyce Pensanto came to mind after looking over the images Norris posted on Facebook of her exhibition. Not to mention a quick mental slideshow of other images I’ve seen by artists using American pop culture references, specifically relating to cartoons and comics, of which there have been many. This kind of work has never particularly interested me, though seeing Pensanto’s Batman Returns early last year and now Norris’ recent work has had an illuminating effect.
The first mixed media painting on the left is both dark and radiant with color. Given the gesture of the cartoon hand and the dangling tethers (yes, tethers), this felt very appropriate as an entry piece. I walked in, looked around, and immediately felt pulled over into this corner. I feel invited. Coerced might be more accurate. The action’s immediacy becomes dull after a moment, and the piece settles less active, less alive. But more on that later.
This painting also sets the tone for the rest of the show. The “tone” being of one akin to consuming too much candy on Halloween night, with colorful wrappers strewn about on the floor, crinkling in that slick, special way that only paper coated in plastic can do. Your teeth feel gritty, your tongue is multicolored mud, your insides heavy, your blood syrupy, and your head spins with jubilation. You may never sleep again. You may die right there after slipping momentarily into a coma.
When I first looked at this piece (the image immediately above, title unknown), I interpreted it as a window. Later, while scribbling some notes into my journal, I looked up at it and saw a canvas stretcher. In both interpretations, which are in a sense the same interpretation, it was difficult not to think of myself as looking through it, inside of it, and outside of it. “It” being an imagined barrier that is permeable like skin, represented by the transparent sometimes pink, sometimes red plastic wrapped, scorched, and stretched across the frame. My perspective, as I imagined it, slipped back and forth through the plastic, and I could see myself as this cartoon, see myself through this cartoon.
There’s an excess of material sensation and messiness in this painting, which threads throughout every other piece in the show. Moldy Marill, a peculiar, circular specimen that is actually acrylic on a Pokemon toy, looks like a long-neglected toy or candy designed by the same people who came up with gummy brains, sour eyeballs, or absurdly large gobstoppers. The taste bud texture combined with the weathered snow cone colors haphazardly bleeding into each other makes a very touchable (lickable?) yet grotesque object.
As for its placement, I suspect it was not a lazy choice of convenience for Norris. She could have easily found a small, rectangular pedestal to place Moldy Marill unceremoniously on top of, but instead she chose a tall, slender, circular object that has obviously been painted black, and rather roughly at that. The height of it (making the piece about chest level or higher for viewers), the slick, reflective quality of its surface, the “useful accident” of its spatially sectioned out interior, and the gloppy dull black paint job all tie into the show as a whole. I don’t love this curious little piece, but I appreciate its detail and how it relates to everything else in the gallery.
Moldy Marill, acrylic on Pokemon toy
Loose Wires, acrylic and chandelier
Gonzo, ink wash on paper + Alf Inhaling, pen and colored pencil on paper
The exhibition has a rather “homey” feeling, like a “family friendly” sitcom in the 1980’s designed by Bill Murray’s character in Scrooged prior to his Christmas miracle transformation. It’s bright, excessive, bold, dramatic, and ever so vaguely threatening. There’s a “window”, a “television”, a “family”, an oddly and grossly food-like item, and a light fixture, albeit a broken one. I am disappointed not to have seen an old couch that no one ever wants to sit on because it’s caked, coated, sliced, stitched, and all manner of other activities into an entirely Other object.
Is this a space where fictional beings and “real” beings can converge on the same point?
Where I Was Found, installation
I may or may not have been allowed to do this, but I stepped inside the installation. It wasn’t as overwhelming as I had expected or hoped it to be while standing upright, which may explain why I really wanted to lay on the floor. The experience could have been stronger if perhaps the space felt entirely composed from floor to ceiling. The space is too strictly rectangular to be womb-like, but certainly tomb-like. (It may have been an accident, but the papers roughly stop at about 6 feet.) Looking at it from outside the installation, as it was probably intended, it reminds me of old homicide crime scene photographs or Otaku bedrooms. I suppose some combination thereof.
Since I saw a bag of more papers, drawings, and paintings beside the door, I don’t think Norris had any shortage of items to attach to the walls, which makes me wonder based on what parameters or goals did she determine where to crowd the space and where to leave it relatively empty. It looks a bit less thought out than other pieces in the show, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but suggests that it could stand to be reconsidered and possibly altered in the event of another installation.
Upon further reflection, various points in this exhibition made me think of death or endings. Is the extended hand actually a fallen hand? Are the tethers broken, leading to nothing except the realization of loss? Or perhaps worse, a change that is already happening? The cartoons and puppet theatre this exhibition references were all created by adults. (Is there a show made for children created by children? Seems unlikely.) They become the friends and inspirations of children, but they are first imagined, realized, and cherished by adults. Adults who can sometimes manage to create characters that outlive them (Walt Disney, Jim Henson, Charles Schulz to name a few). What does that mean?
“Where I was found”, the title of the exhibition and the installation, can also be interpreted as relating to death. “The body was found…” is the beginning of a sentence heard in many televised news reports as well as fictional programs about homicide detectives and CSI investigators. Norris adopting the voice of the witness, she places herself outside of death in the linear, fleshy sense. Nurtured by cartoons, she becomes a cartoon. Well, sort of.
I could be reading this into the work, and Norris might totally roll her eyes if she ever reads this post. That’s okay. At the risk of sounding apologetic, this post is just my interpretation and the show itself was compelling enough to merit sharing that interpretation, if only to encourage disagreement or discussion. Hopefully there will be more of these small shows. If they are treated with the same enthusiasm as Norris, this bitty gallery could host some interesting tangents.