Artist Talk with Norm Magnusson

July 11, 2014 @ 10:30 pm – 11:30 pm
BYRDCLIFFE Kleinert/James Center for the Arts
36 Tinker Street


Norm Magnusson, The Artist Behind the Signs, to Speak on “The Descent into the Political”

Visitors to Woodstock and the greater Hudson Valley, often on a quest for history, stop and read everything. That is, indeed, a touristic duty: if leisure is the most basic impetus to travel, travel is also an opportunity to learn, and perhaps to be changed. Artist Norm Magnusson, with characteristic insight and a not-so-surreptitiously activist mission, has tapped into the tourist’s need-to-know frame of mind with his I-75 Project. A sculptural series in cast aluminum and acrylic paint, the project’s individual works imitate a genre of historic signage produced in every state of the Union: a blue plaque, rimmed in yellow, with raised lettering that proclaims “On This Site Stood” before introducing someone who did something memorable, something worthy of commemoration by chambers of commerce, high-school textbooks, and PBS documentaries. Magnusson approaches this historical imperative from a different angle, commemorating fictitious people whose experiences reveal systemic ironies and political realities: “On this site stood Meri Green. Last year, her company had record profits, laid off 1/2 its U.S. workforce, sent the jobs overseas and still got massive Federal subsidies.” Sometimes, the plaques point out basic complacencies that could be reversed by the very act of reading–whether Magnusson’s signs, or news articles: “On this site stood Robert Oknos, who thought that global warming would not affect him in his lifetime.” Framed within a seemingly state-sanctioned historiographic context, the signs perform a coercive sleight-of-hand: trained since childhood field trips to respect and obey these imposing historical markers, people are compelled to read and reflect upon the content of Magnusson’s signs more deeply than they might the newspaper headlines. The people who read the I-75 signs, Magnusson writes, are “collectively defined more by their curiosity about the world around them than they are by any shared ideological leanings, which makes them a perfect audience for a carefully crafted message.”

While the I-75 Project is perhaps Magnusson’s best known, his art has many faces–usually with an activist’s touch, often with humor, but also with a kind of interpretive pathos that subverts the light-hearted visuals, satiric packaging, and the illustrator’s idiom that pervades his two-dimensional work. Symbolism, Magnusson explains, is one of his preferred expressive devices: “Metaphors, allegories, parables, whatever you want to call them, I enjoy creating them immensely.” The Imposition of Order Upon Nature depicts a bear doing what bears do; catch fish in lakes, in this case with an animated mountain backdrop. Despite the bright, graphic levity and the bear’s somewhat cocky confrontation with the viewer, the painting is loaded with conflict between the natural world and what humans (to say nothing of traditional Western painting) want it to be. Helped along by the title, the painting is built upon insistent symmetries: the identical mountains, the concentric circles of water around the bear, the Gothic archway of branches and, most overtly, the fish that has two heads and no tail. Magnusson’s photograph Fig. 38: In autumn, some leaves will use color bars to help get everything perfect has a similar conceptual point of departure: nature subjected to human requirements, in this case comically blaming the leaves for how graphic designers and art directors expect nature to perform.

Magnusson’s talk, “The Descent into the Political,” will trace his development from being an “animal painter” to a public artist with a fundamentally political focus. His animal paintings and more recent conceptual work are inextricably united by questions of social import; yet, as his talk will divulge, there were intricate steps along the way that culminate in the very vocal, very public, and very successful I-75 Project. Magnusson’s talk is free to all and can be enjoyed as part of the Second Friday events that enliven Woodstock in the summer and fall months.

Additional artist talk coming up at the Kleinert/James: save the date, August 1, for a talk by Nina Katchadourian, nationally and now internationally known for her photography and conceptual work including Seat Assignment, a series taken with the artist’s cell phone on more than a hundred flights around the world since 2010. Her Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Manner, part of the Seat Assignment project, have gone viral like no other artists’ work has before.

Norm Magnusson // Left: Fig. 38: In autumn, some leaves will use color bars to help get everything perfect, Photograph of watercolor on maple leaf
Top right : The Imposition of Order Upon Nature, Acrylic on canvas; Top left: Meri Green, Cast aluminum and acrylic paint.