The Artist Figure, or Being Danielle Julian Norton

Cynthia Reeves, New York, 2012

GO. That is what we hear as soon as the video begins. A woman walks into view. She wears flesh-tone pantyhose, high-heel shoes and a white half-shirt with tiers of cascading ruffles and frilly cuffs in the style of Louis Quatorze. She dons a towering white wig with piles of curly locks falling around a face painted white. Hauling a big bucket, she moves rather precariously around large amber glycerin cubes arranged neatly into a rectangular platform. In a cluttered studio space-cum-performance set, metal frames lean against the walls and worktables are casually pushed aside; a hint of the outside world is visible through a window in the background. Another woman dressed exactly the same appears on the scene. She circles around the platform and slowly climbs onto it and lies down. The woman with the bucket cautiously places one foot onto the slippery surface of the blocks, steadies herself and pours water over the recumbent figure. For the next few minutes, she methodically pulls this figure back-and-forth, yanking out-stretched arms and legs until soapy suds form. The activity stops. The woman lying down stands up. She matter-of-factly pulls herself together and walks around the platform and out of the camera frame. The other woman pauses, surveys the situation before her, picks up the empty bucket and marches off.

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Video Killed the Studio Star is a video of a performance by Danielle Julian Norton and Tarrah Krajnak known as the collaborative Suite42. It is also a performance documented on video. And, it is an exercise in movements and mediums using a set of instructions the performers follow while making public through video the private, experimental realm of an artist studio. Video Killed the Studio Star defies easy classification⎯like the rest of Julian Norton’s complex practice. Although the refusal of singularity is precisely the point, specific themes do prevail in her work, including an exploration of how societal, economic and cultural institutions construct representation, ideal and identity. And that interest does not overlook the prevailing influences the art institution⎯meaning its curators, museums, gallerists, journals, academies and biennials⎯has on the production and circulation of an artist’s work. Through her collaborative and individual projects, Julian Norton’s videos, performances, installations, books, sculptures and photographs examine the role and expectations of the artist figure within larger governing influences that construct individual identity.

Danielle Julian Norton, Portrait, 2012

Danielle Julian Norton, Portrait, 2012

Portrait, for example, is a series of photographs of a female subject clothed in a simple white Victorian dress, an outfit that recalls the early days of photography. While the medium was initially a practical and cost-effective way to make a portrait, Julian Norton employs it here to perform an erasure of that primary function. A black mask with feathers and a large beak hide the face of the subject who remains static even when appearing to step out of a caldron of black ink. These photographs draw on the form and character of historical photography, but the perplexing costume and awkward, stiff poses reflexively question the position of the contemporary artist figure and its relentless and at times futile pursuit to make art by staging and performing the activities and experiments expected of them⎯as artists. In other photographs such as No Matter Where You Are, They Don’t Love You Like I Love You and Hard on Me, all from the series Heart Abortion by Julian Norton’s collaborative Suite42, this commentary is even more apparent. Here, the artists exchange their quasi-Baroque garb for pristine white nurses uniforms and red wigs. The character-performers in these scenes find themselves face down in a body of water, passionately embracing, or stacked horizontal atop one another, wry observations on the emotional weight of being an artist, constantly negotiating with each other and the indefatigable field of contemporary art.

Indeed, the legacy of avant-garde artists such as Paul McCarthy, Bruce Nauman, Mike Kelley, VALIE EXPORT, Cindy Sherman and Matthew Barney is an undercurrent in the recent body of work by Julian Norton. But, the impact on her work is more from an observational point-of-view than a strict reinterpretation of their concepts. While work by these artists wields an extraordinary influence on current artistic production and once posed a considerable critique of the commercial art world and its mechanisms of circulation and distribution, today that critique is becoming increasingly institutionalized in art school curriculum and exhibitions as performance art par excellence. Combined with a proliferation of highly orchestrated and big-budget installations, films and performances that define biennials, art fairs and monographic exhibitions, industrial contemporary art is an indistinguishable mix of art and entertainment. The artist figure develops out of these complicated circumstances of history and commerce that are reinforced by academic programs, journals and exhibitions. Thus, the task of being artist can seem insurmountable. Julian Norton is engaged with the effects and challenges of that task, investigating engrained structural influences that require the artist to perform, well, the role and persona of “the artist figure.”

Danielle Julian Norton, <Perfect 10 (Uneven Bars), 2012

Danielle Julian Norton, Perfect 10 (Uneven Bars), 2012

The requirement for the artist to perform artist is central to sculptures from the series Perfect 10, which draw on Julian Norton’s deep knowledge and experience of working with materials. Perfect 10 (Uneven Bars) is made of steel and takes the form of a basic set of gymnastic bars. While modeled after traditional gymnast equipment, the work is built around a large vertical wood beam belonging to the gallery architecture. That obvious obstruction coupled with the impeding height of the ceiling prohibits performance on the bars. Comparatively, the wood, suede and steel sculpture Perfect 10 (Balance Beam) is based on another type of gymnast equipment, but its extraordinary height reaches uncomfortably to the ceiling, making it completely unusable. Perfect 10 is a response to the contemporary model of the artist figure to perform publically in residencies and exhibitions where they are personally asked to engage with collectors, give tours, attend dinners and provide lectures. Not unlike sports stars, they too must show their skills, tricks and entertain. But, in this expanded embodiment of the artist figure, the chances of falling⎯and doing it in public⎯are greater.

Another work, I Tried So Hard departs from the everyday form of a bed. Made of steel and plastic, it is raised to great heights, at first appearing to invite spectators to explore underneath it, a quiet space of childhood refuge when doing less than expected and hiding from everyone was tolerated. Alas, that desire is thwarted as only light passes through the translucent plastic and spectators are left to wander around and engage with the luminous materiality of the sculpture from its exterior.

Danielle Julian Norton, I Tried So Hard, 2012

Danielle Julian Norton, I Tried So Hard, 2012

In this era of relentless attention to identity, especially the individual consumer of all things⎯education, fashion, information, image and health, we fall prey to the singularities assigned to us. We are continually told how to behave and what is expected of us. Danielle Julian Norton utilizes the form of contemporary art as both subject and object to investigate and encourage us to consider circumstances that shape identity. These circumstances not only define the artist figure, but also our identities as educator, spouse, friend, parent, lover, child and worker in society, just a cross-section of the many roles and expectations we must contend with and balance every day.