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Peter and Eileen Norton began seriously collecting contemporary art in the 1980s, and in 1998 they expanded their already substantial collection with the purchase of an 800-piece collection from Clyde and Karen Beswick. This acquisition served as the impetus for the Nortons to subdivide nearly 1,000 works of art into groupings organized by theme and subject matter. These mini-collections were donated to museums across the country to increase appreciation for contemporary art and strengthen the permanent collection holdings of the recipient institutions. The works that comprise the Norton Collection at the Haggerty Museum were created in the 1980s and 1990s by a group of then-emerging American artists.
The twenty eight photographs, paintings, drawings, and sculpture included in this exhibition share a common visual principle: the grotesque. While the popular definition of the term has been narrowed to signal disgust, it was historically employed to describe fanciful wall decorations—combinations of plants, mythical figures, architectural elements, and human forms—discovered during the fifteenth century excavation of the ruins of Nero’s Domus Aurea. Eventually, connotations of the grotesque began to shift away from the whimsical and ornamental toward the caricatured and carnivalesque, finally resulting in the present association with the repellent and horrible.
Though considered a continuous artistic tradition, the grotesque cannot be reduced to a particular style, genre, or subject. Rather, it must be characterized by its relationship to boundaries, specifically its unique capacity to playfully fuse seemingly irreconcilable things or feelings. Discrete identities are intermixed in the hybrid human-animal forms produced by Deborah Brown, Tim Ebner and Elliott Green; the distinction between fantasy and reality collapses in the dreamscapes conjured by Tom Knechtel and Tom Wudl; natural motifs merge with the artificial and alien in the elaborately constructed tableaus of Alexis Rockman and Gregory Crewdson.
A grotesque image is mutable and impure by definition or, as Frances Connelly argues, “it always represents a state of change, breaking open what we know and merging it with the unknown. As such, the one consistent visual attribute of the grotesque is that of flux. Whether aberrant, metaphoric, or combinatory, grotesques are all in a transitional, in-between state of being.”
It is the grotesque’s ambiguous status that holds revelatory value, that is, a grotesque image has the potential to elicit meaning by simultaneously undermining and expanding our understanding of the categorical, familiar, and undisputed. By rupturing visual and cultural distinctions, grotesque images trigger confusion and destabilize the absolute. This deliberate distortion of accepted realities produces emotional and intellectual conflicts, compelling the viewer to consider the relationships between repulsion and desire; earthly and immaterial; fascination and dread; sacred and profane; horrific and humorous. An effective grotesque creates the conditions for this tension, prompting some level of self-awareness or reflection on larger existential issues, including perceptions of identity, propriety, established social roles and hierarchies, and cultural conventions.
Frances S. Connelly, The Grotesque in Western Art and Culture: The Image at Play (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 5.
Wednesday, June 5, 6 P.M.
Opening Lecture by artist Tom Knechtel, reception to follow.
Tom Knechtel’s painting, Lessons in the Theatre: Ejaculation, is one of twenty eight contemporary works of art that will be on view as part of the exhibition Aberrance and Artifice: The Norton Collection, a group of paintings, sculpture, drawings and photographs donated to the Haggerty Museum in 2000 by Eileen and Peter Norton. Los Angeles-based artist Knechtel will deliver an opening night lecture at the museum on Wednesday, June 5.
Knechtel’s paintings juxtapose beautifully rendered, naturalistic imagery of humans and animals with elaborately detailed ornamentation and abstract elements. These carefully orchestrated spectacles are rife with meaning, and Knechtel’s wide ranging interests in various genres of theater, from puppet to kabuki, and literature, from poetry to folklore, inform his aesthetic choices. The ironic and open ended narratives that unfold in his paintings can be considered embodiments of Knechtel’s imagination and personal experience, in which fantasy and reality are compressed and complex issues of identity, artifice, sexuality, morality, and memory are explored.
Free and open to the public.
All programs take place at the Haggerty unless otherwise noted.