Monday, February 13, 2017

“Living dangerously,” Janet Norris at Far Out Gallery, San Francisco

Martha, I still Love You.    by Janet Norris

 “Living dangerously,” Janet Norris at Far Out Gallery 3004 Taraval @ 40th Avenue   This show opened on February 4 and will be up until Saturday, February 25, 2017.  The gallery is open Thursday - Saturday 12 - 6 pm, or by appointment.

It is not enough just to live.  One must also take risks, like becoming something of a Surrealist after years of work that was more in the conceptual art/modernist mode.  I thought I might get your attention with the word “Surrealist” since Surrealism and Dadaism seem very much back in fashion: for example, the current show at the Cantor Museum at Stanford University.  And Norris definitely has surprising juxtapositions of objects:  housing interiors and woodsy scenes, to name one frequent type.  Magritte is the appropriate reference for a painting like “I go there,” which features an early 20th century chair in the middle of a birch tree woods.  But that was then (1920s-40s), and this is now. Norris is really dealing with the way we live now, in an increasingly dangerous world….but living still.  In this show, for example, there are a few paintings dealing with one very contemporary issue related to our world:  the plight of refuges.  The dominant images in each of these are taken from the many shots in newspapers and on the web of people from Syria, Iraq and many other countries, trying to find refuge.  My favorite of these is “The Refuges #1,” where a small group furtively moves forward against a simple, but strongly laid-out, landscape, perhaps in the early morning.   [Dates of painting are not listed, but most of the paintings in this show are from the last three years.]

Somewhat more characteristic of her recent work, but still with reference to modern day terrors, is “Homs Lullaby.”  Norris often divides up her paintings so that there is a panel on the right painted in a different style and space from the rest of the painting.  The right panel comments on the rest.  In this case, 4/5ths of the painting is a bucolic river scene with an empty row-boat in the center.  Dynamic brush strokes render the trees a little hairy though, almost Rastafarian.  The scene at the right might well be an abstraction of the rubble that remains of cities in Syria.  The calm scene on the left can be a kind of balm for the horror.  Or the scene of destruction on the right can be seen as a corrective for our desire to escape present reality. 

Nature and humanity’s relation to it is a frequent subject of Norris’s acrylics.  Often there is reference to environmental destruction.  A simple yet disturbing painting is “Waiting in The Wild,” which depicts a horse, standing forlorn in the shallows of a vast sea.  (Many of Norris’s paintings are vaguely symbolic:  is the horse us?)  Another painting, “Come from Far,” features a horse again, this time in a windowed room, although also standing in a field, and haunted by human figures and watching and waiting.  One thinks here of Edvard Munch or Peter Doig, influences she mentions in her artist’s statement.  At other times, the presence of nature is simply meant to be evocative of an Edenic world other than our own: for example in “A River Comes In.” [I think this last one was not in the show, however.] 

A favorite of mine is “Fear of Fire.”  It features three wolves facing a small river, in the woods, in greens and blue, and yet hovering above everything turns red and yellow – firelike.  In the right panel is a two storied building, not in the same space but somewhere else:  a figure seems comfortably moving about behind a window.   I like it mostly because of the harmonies and balances: for example the balance between Norris’s Fauvist handling of trees and the Ashcan School look of the urban part on the right. “Martha, I Still Love You, After a Tom Waits Song,” references fire as well, this time a literal blaze on the horizon, and this time posed against a panel on the right which contains a romantic dancing couple. 

Another painting, “Losing It,” features a realistically rendered bed (I love Norris’s furniture).  The bed is half nestled in woods of birch trees and half in a bedroom with a picture on the wall; and also juxtaposed against a mirror which windows onto a woman doing something outside, possibly chopping wood.  This painting re-asserts Norris’s interest in domestic life, in the manner of Bonnard, and nature together.  Speaking of taking risks (successfully), notice the strange circular patterns in the rug, and the gash of orange for a curtain. 

“Once Was” also takes risks with hues, reminding me a bit of Vlaminck.  I like the contrasts between the reds on the left, the purples in the upper skies, the orange-ish yellow above the horizon line, and the slash of blue for a tree in the foreground…again with a panel on the right representing a rickety house in its own space.  “Remembering Past Times” is another part-nostalgic look at nature with two small white figures on the right that remind of Matisse’s “Le Bonheur de Vivre.”   But what dominates the space is the radical transforming of trees from color to stark blacks and whites in their upper halves…it is all nature, but a bit post-apocalypse. 
This relates to another painting, “The Mother’s Mother,” in which leafless trees are rendered in ghostly browns over another rapidly-moving stream.  The right panel almost in the same space, but containing a more human scene of a wrapped older woman facing us.

I also very much like “The Ancient Empire.”  This time the leafless trees (the foreground ones topped as well) with emaciated gashes on the canvas set against a bleak background remind me of Anselm Kiefer and Clifford Still.  The much smaller right panel is a strong contrast since it is teaming with life.       

As we have seen, Norris, who originally came from Iowa, constantly revisits her past while exploring her present.  Over the last couple years she has showed widely in the North Bay Area at such galleries as GearBox Gallery in Oakland and Mythos Gallery in Berkeley.  She first started exhibiting in 1976 after receiving a BA and Master of Arts at San Jose State. One of her well-known teachers was Tony May.  She was also a founding member of Works Gallery in San Jose.  We look forward to many such future shows.

You can see images of many of these paintings at the gallery and also art

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