Lessons in outrage

Lessons in outrage

Irving Norman turns an eye toward suffering and injustice in PMCA’s ‘Dark Metropolis’

By April Caires 01/25/2007

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To stand in a darkened gallery and watch as the lights go up on an Irving Norman exhibit is a singularly jolting experience. Visiting the Pasadena Museum of California Art a few days before the opening of “Dark Metropolis: Irving Norman's Social Surrealism,” an exhibit of roughly 40 paintings and drawings, what I saw as the lights flickered on was startling: massive, 8-foot-high canvases teeming with activity and populated largely by grim figures enacting scene after scene of fantastical torment and violence.  

This is not feel-good art. It is not intellectually removed or visually palliative — not in the least. Norman's works do not seek merely to query the viewer or to complicate her understandings of the world. His paintings do not muse or mull — they lash at us. They demand our attention, and rightly so.

An unapologetically political artist, Norman, who died in 1989 at the age of 83, viewed his art as a means of social change, a way to open observers' eyes to both the physical and symbolic violence wrought by humankind. His paintings and drawings are relentlessly grim, but they are also deeply empathetic; they refuse to turn a blind eye to suffering, injustice or hypocrisy. As we wonder why more Americans aren't enraged by the continuing quagmire in Iraq, or by issues like corporate greed, unchecked urban development, inner-city neglect and raging poverty, “Dark Metropolis” offers more than a powerful and underrated oeuvre. It is a timely tutorial in social outrage.

Norman's dark artistic vision was shaped by his own terrifying experiences as a soldier in the Spanish Civil War. A Polish immigrant, he came to this country in 1923 at age 17. As a young man, he worked as a barber, first in New York then in California, but he felt the tug of a deeper calling. At 32 he volunteered, along with 2,800 other Americans, to join the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, part of the International Brigade that fought to defend the Spanish Republic against Francisco Franco.

Although he had shown no prior interest or talent in the arts, his experience as a machine gunner in that war was enough to fill him with a lifetime of artistic drive. When he returned home from the war, he felt a sudden, desperate need for expression. Having never so much as picked up a pencil, Norman began to draw. He joined a life-drawing group, then moved to San Francisco, where he attended the California School of Fine Arts and, at age 34, began his artistic career.

From the start, Norman gave himself over to his work completely. A latecomer to his profession, he painted with the fierce urgency of a man who knew his time was too short. This urgency is palpable in every piece in “Dark Metropolis,” a satisfying sampling of Norman's prolific 50-year career that includes 25 of the large-scale paintings that are his trademark. As the title implies, the show's primary focus is the dark underbelly of metropolitan life, but all of Norman's core themes are covered in “Dark Metropolis,” ranging from the horrors of war and poverty to the grotesqueness of greed.

The latter idea is picked up in “The Elders” (1957), an early oil painting that depicts a group of men seated at a table in a lush, cavernous meeting hall. The men hunch over the table, bald, nude, horrifically thin. Tendrils of smoke rise from their cigarettes, filling the center of the canvas with a thorny tangle of fumes. Beneath the table is a rug made of human flesh. Flanking the room are pillars, each encapsulating human figures gripped painfully by metallic clamps, showing that the fortunes of these “Elders” are literally built on the suffering of anonymous others.

The boardroom motif is elaborated on and intensified in the later, larger piece, “Meeting of the Elders #3” (1977). The characters are similar — glowering, hunchbacked tycoons — but their meeting place is even more lushly appointed this time, containing not just one but several human-skin rugs. In the earlier painting, the briar patch of smoke took center stage, conveying the toxicity and entrapment of the corrupt corporate world, but in “Meeting” the elders' chairs are the most significant image. The chairs look like stacks of giant gold coins into which the elders' rangy bodies seamlessly blend. This grotesque melding of human flesh into gold — a commentary on the dehumanization of those who give themselves over to greed — is an arresting image. Norman's message here is even more strident, more indelibly gruesome than in the previous painting, indicating that his views intensified rather than waned over the years.

While images like these depict the brutality of greed, paintings like 1980's “To Have and Have Not” portray the violence wrought by indifference to poverty. A key work of “Dark Metropolis,” “To Have and Have Not” depicts an assemblage of aristocrats seated before a stage watching a flouncing parade of fashion models. In the foreground is a circular pit, filled with pink-fleshed, cavorting partygoers. From a distance, the pit gleams like a giant medallion against a gray-green background. But on closer inspection, the dingy backdrop is actually a throng of human beings herded against the walls of the party-pit as if by some unseen arm. All are emaciated, and many are visibly violently ill. They are the poor. Standing mere inches from the partygoers, their lives could not be more different.

In “To Have and Have Not” and other paintings, the size of the canvas — so enormous it envelopes you — is a measure of Norman's passion, his overwhelming need to communicate his messages. As an observer, you can't escape the barrage of images, and that's the point. The vast scale is a testament to the vastness of the suffering Norman sought to illuminate; his attention to detail, a nod to suffering's many hidden intricacies.

Norman also addressed the everyday realities of the working poor throughout his career, in works like “Slums #1” (1946), “From Work” (1978) and “Rush Hour (Lunch)” (1952). In the smaller-scale watercolor “Slums,” two apartment buildings rise up between gloomy, traffic-clogged streets. Inside the apartments, residents are stuffed by twos and threes into rooms no bigger than boxes. In “From Work,” working-class people are crammed into a bus, straining for air in the smoke- and smog-infested environment. Every inch of the bus is covered in advertisements, the cleverest of which is for a cigarette brand dubbed “Filtered Truths.”

In “Rush Hour,” city dwellers are stretched literally to their breaking point. In a crowded diner where the long tables resemble assembly lines, each person reaches with one hand for his food — representing his basic, bodily necessities — and with the other for something unseen and elusive outside. One man appears as if he will tear in half from the strain. Meanwhile, in the rear of the diner, a cartoonish, Humpty Dumpty-like figure taps merrily at a cash register.

Norman's depictions of war are less represented in this show, but there are a few notable gems. One is “The Ice Cream Parlor” (1942), an early pencil drawing that sheds light on Norman's own war trauma. In it, diners sit in a line at an ice cream counter, their expressions ranging from bored to vacant. Among them sit two soldiers, painted as silhouettes. Inside their hollow chests, images of battle play like a hidden film reel.

Juxtaposed with the horrors of greed, warfare and poverty, the horrors of traffic might seem an odd fixation for an artist like Norman. But traffic as he depicts it is not merely a nuisance but a source and symptom of oppression, a treacherously clogged artery in the heart of a sick civilization. In “American Street Scene” (1961), the setting is yet another urban restaurant filled with drone-like diners. Through the giant window behind them we see a quintessential Norman cityscape — clogged with endless cars and billboards, smoke and smog, an environment both visually and chemically toxic.    

Irving Norman painted with a mission. After his death in 1989, his wife Hela said that Norman believed in art profoundly. On his Web site (www.irvingnorman.com), she says, “He was a real artist. He felt that art would transform people the way religion once did.” In a time when such transformation is desperately needed, Norman's work may finally earn its due place in American art history.  

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