- Continuing the Morris Gallery program, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
presents the exhibition Cynthia Norton: Freedom Rings Placed Within, on view March 3 May 27.
Cynthia Norton is a contemporary artist who lives and works in Louisville, Kentucky. Influenced by the folk aesthetics and history of her surroundings, Nortons work employs music, video, mixed media, and performance as her country-music alter ego Ninnie, in a manner that combines feminist thought with local and vernacular imagery inspired by the cultural traditions of the rural South and specifically of her native Kentucky. While often combining these different mediums, Norton uses the portrayal of the comedic country rube as a strategy to explore the peculiar relationships between folk traditions, readymade sculpture, storytelling, and technology.
Her works often have a homespun qualityfrom self-made musical instruments, made from suitcases and tennis rackets, to gritty lyrics sung by an amateur voicewhich points to her affirmative belief in the power of womanly arts. These makeshift elements combined with her quirky personacomplete with old-timey Southern costumes fit for a country music starall attest to Nortons creativity and inventiveness.
Nortons project in PAFAs Historic Landmark Building uses paintings in the collection as sounding boards for a group of new works that reflect variously on issues like the historic portrayal of women in art, paternalism and colonialism, and the vernacular forms of folk culture.
Playing with the idea of mixing high and low art, the exhibition acknowledges the long history of PAFA and its fine art collection while juxtaposing it with references to the cultural and musical history of Nortons Kentucky home, says PAFAs Curator of Contemporary Art, Julien Robson. Much like her performances of altered famous country and blues songs, she is not trying to satirize these histories but, instead, to criticallyand humorouslyengage with them.
An example of her playful approach to PAFAs collection is a semi-realistic painting she has made that blends her response to William Merritt Chases Portrait of Mrs. C. (Lady with a White Shawl) (1893) and Winslow Homers Fox Hunt (1893).
Chase himself described Mrs. C. as the perfect type of American womanhood, and it is this universal notion that Norton seems to be challenging, inserting herself into this discussion with a self-portrait that greatly contrasts Mrs. C.s restrained appearance. Rendered in an almost folk art fashion, Nortondressed in a short-sleeved, bright red dress, and long black glovesseems to cast a stern and skeptical gaze across the gallery toward Mrs. C. while absorbing Homers landscape and running fox into her self-portrait. In Nortons painting, Homers threatening crows have disappeared and the fox seems instead to glance at the artist, not so much threatened by her as, perhaps, curious about her presence here.
Robson points out that, although this work at first seems like a quick read, its more than just a visual comparison. A subtle intruder, Norton can be seen to question how we value representations by highlighting how identity (and the role of women) is mythologized in them.
Norton received a BFA from The University of Kentucky and an MFA in Time Arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Over the past decade, Norton has exhibited and performed extensively in the USA, Europe, and Asia. In 2008, her work was featured in the exhibition The Old, Weird America: Folk Themes in Contemporary Art, organized by the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston.