Text by: Wayne Baerwaldt
Alison Norlen: Talk About A Parade!
“The work I have produced over the past seven years expresses my fascination with what I call ‘cultural artifice’ the complexities of fantasy, and constructed idyllic themed sites. I have traveled to spectacles such as the West Edmonton Mall, Disneyland, Universal Studios, Hollywood, Las Vegas, World Fair sites, Roadside attractions, and the Brighton Piers, and attended circuses, parades, monster truck/pet/trade shows, for the specific purpose of being both spectator and recorder of cultural spectacle. My work incorporates this voyeurism, both appreciating and criticizing,
interpreting and translating these experiences through personal narration and metaphor. These investigations have resulted in drawings, paintings, prints, scrolls, sculpture, a sculptural installation (which is, in brief, an animated autobiographic ‘theme’ park/mini golf course), large-scale pinball drawings, and small wire sculptures representing mini pinball mazes”----Artist’s statement, 2002.
Alison Norlen is best known for her ability to collage human-scaled
sculptures and drawings into hyper-fantasy settings. She creates her
graphically-rich sculptures from a variety of materials including miniature figurines, string, wire, industrial fiberglass, fabric, electric motors, artificial lights and glue. Her complex autobiographic theme park/mini golf course, Untitled, 1996 was exhibited at Plug In Gallery in 1996 and consisted of a scale model theme park measuring twelve meters in diameter. Part museum diorama, part erotic fantasy park, Untitled, 1996, (now dismantled) aimed to juxtapose and blend detailed miniature dramatic sets from mass media sources with diminuitive sets from Norlen’s childhood
memories. The automated model presented private sense of domesticity and industrial age spectacles alongside rugged landscapes not dissimilar to those found in the precambrian shield area of Lake of the Woods, Ontario. Her model environment included a bound dinosaur, Noah’s abandoned ark, model
railroading, hundreds of kitsch model figures, a cave layout reminiscent of James Bond spy hideaways and a detailed rustic wild frontier cabin common in Kenora, Ontario during Norlen’s childhood.
Norlen exposes her ability to mix the familiar and the exotic together and have us feel the rich potential of drawing. Her exhibition takes the form of mixed-media drawings in charcoal, graphite, gouache and xeroxed matter on large sections of paper which, when composited, have an overwhelmingly expansive presence, with palpable links to sculpture and performative
action. Norlen’s baroque drawings tend to overwhelm viewers with a bravura of detail and their massive scale (one untitled work is three-by-seven meters). Her montage of jet airliners, livestock, roller coasters, houseboats and jumping fish suggest a wild, perverse social spectacles that pay homage to the act of collecting, inspecting and analyzing our built environment, producing subtle critiques of a material culture. Inspiration for the drawings derives from the common public spectacles of small town cultural events, parades, floats, roadside attractions and mascots. Norlen’s subject matter and forms are characteristically wide ranging but her vision is kaleidoscopic in nature and aims to take the common spectacles
of modern life into the zone of the unfamiliar. The new drawings are layered with competing concerns and images, from the migration of peoples and ideas across borders and its propaganda, to visual footnotes from Rio de Janeiro’s annual Carnival celebrations. It is her engagement with Carnival that informed her act of drawing and how we might access the new mixed media work.
The presentation of drawings, small wire sculptures and mixed media source materials offer something of a breakthrough for Norlen. It marks the first time she has been actively engaged in a spectacle that becomes source material. In February, 2001 Norlen traveled to Rio to investigate the production studio of a well-known neighbourhood Samba school. Rio’s Carnival is notorious for its excessive, irreverent celebrations, drinking and feasting by hundreds of thousands of costumed and scantily-clad bodies
which descend on the streets of Rio in schools to stage a kinetic animation of ritual Afro-Brazilian music, Samba dancing and strains of an idiosyncratic performance art. The artist’s intention was to get behind the scenes of the production of a school’s elaborate parade float and its contemporary street performers, and to join a Samba school in costume. Over a period of two weeks she observed the launch of a motorized parade float and produced a Samba school costume. She then performed as a float dancer as the school passed through the Sambadrome, Rio’s version of Toronto’s CNE
exhibition grounds and grandstand, where each samba school shows the best of their samba, costumes and allegories.
Norlen’s drawings speak of a modern phantasmagoria of images and
three-dimensional works in flux that leaves one breathless. Her figures are set in motion on expansive constructed surfaces that suit the artist’s wish to have them simultaneously play the space between foreground and background. With an astonishing level of detail her drawings and assemblage works offer figurative subject matter that becomes seemingly interchangeable, of equal importance, regardless of prior iconic weight. The raging montage process easily mimicks the social and esthetic instability of Rio’s Carnival and, in the end, this is perhaps the best indication of the dynamic and quality of these works.
Vocabulary of a Parade:
One is generally asked by artists to read their work with particular
consideration of some detailed esthetic guidelines that double as a kind of prescribed vocabulary for appreciating the artwork. This process of establishing a visual vocabulary may encompass artistic historical precedents, the relation of form to materials and even the amendment of earlier vocabularies to contextualize the impact of new technology on perception. On the most basic level of engagement with Norlen’s Parade series one is asked to consider the nature of realism as figuration in relation to a multitude of montaged forms that in their density more closely resemble abstract forms (achieved by the artist through montage and the expert, fluid interplay of forms in the foreground, mid-field and background). The influential American abstract expressionist painter, Adolf
Gottlieb once said, “To my mind certain so-called abstraction is not
abstraction at all. On the contrary, it is the realism of our time.” 1
In many ways this sense of realism as an interchangeable, fluid concept informs Norlen’s idiosyncratic approach to establishing a definite syntax for the construction of a drawing.
As a viewer, one’s certainties about Norlen’s drawing, its seductive
qualities of line and form, its subjects, its values and meanings associated with self-reflective drawing may be in jeopardy at any moment. The confusion of assessing visual and visceral sensations of a very personal production in a distracting media-saturated world should be obvious. How one assesses, for example, a “retinal painting,” as Duchamp regarded the purity of painting, is to confront the act of consciousness and this is no easy task in itself when seeing is a problem of structuring perspective.
Norlen’s recent Parade series of drawings confronts a complex and often contradictory relationship to dominant paradigms for seeing and the artist’s resulting vocabulary for drawing. Her self-imposed parameters for comprehending a visual languaging are admirable in their idealism. To elaborate briefly on the directions for Norlen’s evolving vocabulary for drawing is the subject of the second part of my text.
I believe Norlen offers some opportunity to map a territory of her current drawings that shows potential for a more mature vocabulary, one based on attentive seeing while acknowledging threads of thought and experience from disparate sources, mostly those associated with carnival processions in Rio de Janeiro. To introduce Norlen’s vocabulary is to briefly speculate on her
approaches to line, form, colour and perspective. These areas trace the illusions her forms generate and what moves from the canvas into play with the world of ideas.
In the past seven years Norlen developed a significant series of elegant drawings on various paper surfaces whose essential characteristics and subject matter are ultimately abstract, a series of subjective expressions and freely improvised compositions. Her sense of line, the primary motion to be observed, is a consistent form of text within the paintings. One or more curvilinear form is suspended against the space of the generally expansive, open backgrounds. In recent years her formal restraint and tight
emotional control has given way to an anti-patterning of multiple shapes. The bulbous, elongated balloon and fruit shapes in the Parade drawings achieve a certain critical mass, a thought pattern of familiarity. Like so many overlaid corkscrew spirals they are not so much iconic as they are markers of the passage of time and seal each drawing as a capsule without metaphors, signs or symbols of something else.
The recent Parade drawings elaborate on Norlen’s basic vocabulary with a more complex structure. She maintains the layering and interdependent arrangement of familiar shapes but her liquid line also produces an other-ness with the addition of irregular montaging. It is not necessarily a hierarchy of forms but in combination the forms suggest a new sensibility at work, an ordering that combines pure line with the dynamism of geometric
form. Norlen’s intention is to “make the work fresh, to create new problems to be solved” 2 in the production of solidity or presence. What evolves is a stronger sense of architecture and mass, a heaviness that suggests the artist’s hand/body is integrated and consistently identified in the statement that is her mature mark-making. Norlen is clearly beyond the need to establish and maintain a vocabulary in her ensemble of forms. She’s already there. As a mature artist her aim appears to be concerned with the mutation of established forms. She confidently figures in their production and this sensibility opens her up to the larger world of the tradition of
painting and standards of perfection.
A darker tonality and diffused palette is what I remember of Norlen’s compact, intimate drawings on tracing paper from about eight years ago, as if the drawings were produced in another country and time altogether, some place given over to collective brooding and the ghosts of 20th-century fantasy parks and architecture. There is speculation on both their richness as well as their blankness, to construe a nothingness in the midst of an assumed sea of possibilities. What is yielded are clues for further speculation on the unarticulated field of the imagination but Norlen simultaneously denies whatever we think is generated by looking.
Norlen’s investigations into line and form fuel the means to deconstruct the faces of each drawing, to ascertain less about meaning and more about the exact decisive moment in each stage of its production. Its like tracing the artist’s intention to improvise on awkward configurations of forms. All is up for grabs, from esthetic speculation to clues to her inspiration for looking. The surfaces of her drawings belie a deconstructive, open approach in the calculated juxtaposition and superposition of forms. These “interactive” elements suggest a decisiveness, an affirmative flattened image style that also incites a drama of technical fundamentalism in their shift in perspective. It is repeated in combinations of varying pictorial effectiveness. Norlen’s production as a draughtswoman mixes subtraction and purification with addition and impurity as it’s extended to seeing and the technology that mediates the process of seeing and comprehending. What
she’s conceivably done is to augment the vernacular of realist drawing by acknowledging technology’s impact on gesture and reference in her work.
Over the last one hundred years of drawing and painting in the western world, perspective as informed by the Quattrocento operates as a way to organize a vision of the world and the spiritual realms. But no one living in the modern world is exempt from the influence of technological shifts that have altered a centuries old perspective on vision. A techological shift simultaneously alters access to language, sound and vision. Norlen’s Parade drawings respond to a seismic shift in perspective by acknowledging our current vision of the world as no longer objective (graphic) but rather teleobjective. We live in the world through complex representation that conveniently collapses and mutates the background and foreground of any image, as in zoom photographs, and makes our relation to the world one in which the near and the far are completely mixed up. Gottlieb’s pronouncements on the easy segue between abstract and figurative realities bears remembrance. Just as in the perspective of real space was the
organization of a new optic---geometrical optics with vanishing points and convergent optics---the perspective of real time and virtual space is the implementation of another optics, that being wave optics.
It is arguably true that one is no longer confronted with the problems of perspective but technology complicates, and impacts upon perspective that is fundamental to the artist’s vocabulary. Consider the ever flattened, ever miniaturized representation of the subject to the point of disappearing. It is utterly commonplace. This change in seeing is owed to wave optics that convey signals (digital, video and sound) that organize a relation to the
overwhelmingly popular teleobjective world. Everything is collapsed onto a single surface, such as the interface of the monitor and the flat wave of the transmitter. Because of this societal shift in access to perception it is necessary to think that wave optics, as opposed to geometrical optics, represent a kind of perfection of seeing. What Norlen’s drawings bring to this important juncture in art history is their reassuring knowledge that there is no form or perspective that rings with immediate truth, only forceful repetitions ad infinitum of inscrutable gestural lines, suave forms and unselfconscious sensuality.
1. Adolf Gottlieb, “Statement,” Tiger’s Eye (New York, vol. 1, no. 2, Dec. 1947), 43. Republished in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, ed., Art in Theory 1900-1990 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), 563.
2. The author in conversation with Norlen, December, 2001.
During his more than 15 years with the toughest little gallery in Canada, Baerwaldt raised Winnipegs profile as an international cultural centre, and placed Plug In ICA on the world art map. His most recent achievement was as Canadian Commissioner to the 49th Venice Biennale, where Canadian artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller received the highest awards. Baerwaldt, trained as a city planner as well as a cultural theorist, brought Plug In from one of Canadas first artist-run-centres to its current status as an Institute of Contemporary Art.
Alison Norlen graduated from the School of Art at the University of Manitoba in 1987. She completed her MFA at Yale in 1989 and returned to lecture at the University of Manitoba until 1999 when she moved to Saskatoon. She currently teaches at the University of Saskatchewan Department of Art and Art History. A touring exhibition of her large scale drawings was organized by the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon was organized in 2002 by Alex Stratulat. Norlen's favourite New York City bar is Window on the World.