In his latest solo show Kansas City artist Jay Norton distills his experience of the last year and a half in painterly explorations of isolation, alienation, anxiety and loss. While a cursory encounter with many of these works (like the deliciously creepy “Invader”series) might conjure a pervasive sense of darkness, what is witnessed here is one artist’s hopeful attempt to transmute these burdens into a relatable narrative of the human condition.
The show’s title comes from a song by St. Louis artist Julien Baker. A longtime fan of Baker’s, Norton found resonance in the song’s references to emotional anguish and the yearning to ease another’s suffering. Music is, for many, one of the most enduring associations with our formative years. Norton holds close these associations, sprinkling them liberally over his body of work. The lyrics appear in one of three depictions of tattooed hands, on the knuckles of a fist thrust toward the viewer.
In “Either/Or,” Norton inserts himself into the album cover of the same name by Elliott Smith, a tragic figure of the 90’s music scene in Portland. Wearing a hat that reads ‘I’m Dying Inside,’ the artist sits with his back to a graffitied mirror, in a compelling portrait of glaring angst.
Norton also confesses a long-held affinity for vanitas paintings. A moralistic genre of still life paintings common in the 16th and 17th centuries, vanitas works symbolize the inevitability of death and the futility of material pursuits. Juxtaposing the trappings of worldly pleasure with memento mori (a skull or other symbols of death), vanitas works remind us of the ephemeral nature of our existence. Norton’s vanitas interpretations offer his own spin on the theme, combining conventional iconography with more modern and personally resonant elements that speak to contemporary experience.
In “Ruin,”a patched jean jacket, a wardrobe staple of Norton’s younger days, is the altar upon which is laid symbols of the vices he set aside as he settled into adulthood. In “Memento Spencer,” the bust of a sculptor friend presides over a table draped with the American flag, the tools of his trade scattered around books of art history and philosophy. A bookshelf inscribed with “no hard feelings” references a song by the Avett Brothers, a favorite of the two artists that speaks to the profound beauty of connection and the pointless nature of grievance. The vanitas theme is also carried over into a novel series of kitschy, blinged-out watches, each with small paintings taking the place of the watch face.
This show is Norton’s first solo outing after nearly 10 years absent from the local gallery scene. There is a reflective thread that runs through all these works; Norton characterizes his painting practice as his way of processing events in his life, and forced isolation provided ample time for rumination.
Transferring his troubles to the canvas was a healthy way of exorcising his demons. “The thing is, I have dark thoughts. I think everybody has dark thoughts. I get them out, I paint them and then I don’t have them anymore.”
“Jay Norton: Hurt Less” continues at The Trap Gallery, 525 Gillis St., through Oct. 15. Open by appointment; the gallery will hold a closing reception for the exhibit from 6 to 10 p.m. Oct. 15. For more information, 816.510.6557 or columbusparkart.com.