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The very idea
Susan Norrie's second solo exhibition in New York comprises objects and paintings in installation. As the title suggests, vis-à-vis is an exhibition in which arguments are made discreetly, almost as asides. Where Norrie's earlier work based many of its arguments on the intelligibility of a sumptuous superficiality, this work instead embeds technical virtuosity below a surface of serigraphic marks, photographically sourced images, historical references and artisan-crafted models. In vis-à-vis Norrie refuses the painterly bravura for which she is perhaps best known, rendering paint through screens both actual and metaphorical. This is not to deny the installation's highly refined physical presence so much as to emphasise its rebus-like quality.
In the first of two rooms, a suite of vertical panels bears an inscription declaring 'elegance of taste ... a proper object of rational pursuit' decorously multiplied to the brink of illegibility. Opposite is a rendering of Chardin's Spinning Top, materially much reduced from the richly wrought original, a phantom version, its grazed grey-green screenprinted surface broken only by the elaborate modeling of the top itself. It is the only element painted with the painterly finesse often associated with Norrie, as if to show more would topple that fragile balance between beauty (that most taboo of words) and overkill. What is left to the viewer is a notion of poise, elegance and restraint which then turns in upon itself, just as the Chardin turned critically in upon the social indolence for which the original is said to be an allegory. In Norrie's version of the Spinning Top the boy watching is flattened into a shallow picture plane, his face a pallid mask, his soft glowing cheeks so perfectly articulated as to belong to a doll. Perfect spheres, those painted cheeks echo an adjacent companion piece, a square painting, pale and near abstract, its centre a soft blue of circular motion, like that of a top viewed from above but which bears the faintest trace of the inscription found endlessly circulating in the vertical panels. The work, itself highly aestheticised and restrained, performs a difficult balancing act between an advocation of social and aesthetic restraint and a commentary upon that same restraint's circularity of meaning, literalised in the work, and the inevitably deadening qualities it entails.
The second room, in complicated counterpoint to the first, catalogues the designs of Buckminster Fuller. These pictures, produced photo-serigraphically with an economy that evokes Fuller's own, function as plans or schemata that stand in for paintings in much the same way the original designs stood in, to a great extent, for their execution. Norrie's image, burnt red on lurid green, of Fuller's Dymaxion House (for Dynamism and Maximum Efficiency), a 'machine for living' that barely went into production, slips greasily off the picture plane. Her/his Dymaxion automobile, arrested at the drawing board, never going anywhere, is reflected, inverted and viewed from within. Norrie colours the images a powdery grey, dusty and faded as if from lack of use. And her picture of Buckminster Fuller himself, a blueprint shade of blue, is no simple portrait of the master. This work, with its flat and vacant border the size of the frames around the other paintings, and the irregular drag-marks and bromide-dots of a conspicuously mechanical production, stands in for itself as a painting: it belies the authority of its subject as it belies the authority of the painter herself.
The exhibition connects these two apparently unrelated historical figures, Chardin and Buckminster Fuller by rather circuitous means. Small, discreet and hung high above the others, an ancillary image of a tightrope walker, based upon a scratched and partly obscured nineteenth century photograph, becomes the pivot around which meaning moves. Teetering, unstable as a top, vis-à-vis demands that its audience does the conceptual balancing act. In precarious relation, Norrie's images, distanced from their sources in much the same way the source images are distanced from their intended utility, speak notionally of disservice: of genre painting gone awry; of visionary industrial design gone into obscurity or worse, the military; and of the domestic sphere to which both are addressed irretrievably removed. Hand-crafted miniatures of Fuller's Car and Home and Chardin's Toy sit in the second room atop black pedestals, like undifferentiated pieces in a museum for domestic/domesticated ideals. In a state of stasis, equations between Dynamism and Economy and Elegance and Propriety never come full circle.
There is an elegiac quality to this refusal. The ideal can be pictorially reproduced, the top never topples in its representation, the designer's intentions are never compromised in the blueprint, the past's future never comes exactly true. Vis-à-vis, like a geodesic dome, is all the more structurally sound for being incomplete.