by Jim Grafsgaard
October 5, 2006
Read artist Jim Grafsgaard’s opinion on Todd Norsten’s paintings at Midway Contemporary Art and Barbara Gilhooly’s sculpture at Outsiders and Others. What do you think? Please respond!
Note: I write from an obvious critical premise: every art piece (including this review) is a self-portrait, describing how its creator was experiencing the world and their place in it at that time. Every artist professes who they are, spiritually and emotionally, intentionally or not, through their work. This is what we look for in art, the raw or sweet connection with another’s self and vision.
Todd Norsten : Professional Cynic
“Safety Club” is an exhibit of medium, large, and small paintings by Todd Norsten showing September 9 through October 21 at Midway Contemporary Art in Minneapolis.
Through this work, Todd Norsten professes to be a cynic. He’s a wise guy, not averse to sharing his pain. Like a boorish drunk who slaps you on the back, belches beer in your face, sharing a laugh while taunting you.
His largely white canvases are big enough to be confrontational – about equal in size to the artist himself, a pretty big guy, waving his arms in front of your face. The images are not-well-painted, in a few unappealing colors, poorly placed and intentionally ugly.
One, for example, is just a small spider hanging about two-thirds of the way down the canvas. Another squishes the words “YOU ART FUCKERS” in globby white against one side. A third shows the cartoony eyes and forehead of an ornery pigtailed kid glaring out from the bottom edge. On another, a greenish t-shirt drawn off-center reads “REPENT OR PERISH” in blocky letters. That’s about half the show in Midway’s main gallery. Another dozen or so framed works on paper are hung in the reception area.
Midway Contemporary Art “supports emerging and underrepresented artists” as part of its mission. Norsten is not really either. He has made a gratifying splash both here and in NYC since graduating in 1990 from MCAD, with work in the Whitney Biennial 2006 and representation at Cohan and Leslie
So what is the attraction of this work? The wit is bitter, the impact brutal, with a bad aftertaste. Apparently some important people like it, or like the fact that it’s unlikeable. It draws obviously from Philip Guston and his followers. Guston was much more a painter, but recognized impact: “Look at any inspired painting. It’s like a gong sounding: it puts you in a state of reverberation.”
The instrument Norsten uses to beat his gong is blunt, like a club. I don’t deny his right to make noise, nor the need to be heard. If these were the paintings of a little kid, with their prepubescent outlook, they might make more sense. But as a mature statement, his work fails to inspire me – it’s not idealistic, nor transporting and it misses being beautiful because its humble humanity is marred by its conceit.
Barbara Gilhooly : Flying with baling wire
Contrast this with the childlike work of Barbara Gilhooly currently on view at Outsiders and Others in Minneapolis as part of “Crafts Gone Wild” (September 9 thru October 7). Gilhooly has a diverse body of work, a good sign of deep creativity, having shown previously a variety of acrylic paintings on found wood surfaces, and wall-hung wire sculptures.
At Outsiders and Others, her toy airplanes constructed out of wood scraps, black wire and bottlecaps are crude, ugly, ingenious and ingenuous. You can almost hear the artist making zooming noises as she fashioned them. They can be read as statements about the frailty of our technology or the immediacy of our childish imaginations – connected on a real level with desire, aspiration and the cargo cult constructions of some Pacific islanders. The sculptures are small and powerless, but call forth magic.