TJ Norris: signs and no-signs

Let’s say you’ve just gotten back from a weekend in Seattle, taken for the sweetest of reasons (a wedding!), hurried back actually, because you’d waited until the last possible day to see the TJ Norris installation, Infinitus, at the New American Art Union. A long drive, after a couple of long days, which also included a visit to the Olympic Sculpture Park, and that was on your mind as you walked across I-84 from Northeast Portland to the gallery. Because that’s how we often arrive at our art experiences. After long drives. After long days. With other stuff, even other art, on our minds.

You take the Norris video installation lying down, facing upward at two screens suspended from the ceiling, which show different portions of a 71 minute video loop. Actually, those inclined benches are pretty comfortable and they have pillow-like substance at the top where your head goes. You enter the gallery, get your bearings and take a bench. I was alone most of the time on Sunday, the two screens flickering above me. At first they both had automobile imagery going, one of highway traffic shot from above and the other of traffic shot from the side through the diamonds of a chain link fence. So, my pulse still elevated from the walk and the lanes of I-84 on my mind, I immediately began to think of cars, mostly about how boring they were and that this as much as their destructive effects on cities and the environment was good enough reason to seriously limit their use. Seriously. TJ Norris’s installation has nothing to do with that, at least I don’t think so, but “boring” is a good thing to remember, boring as in “mundane.” The installation itself isn’t boring, of course. I found the experience that it offered just the opposite, once my pulse rate slowed and I stopped thinking about cars.

I situated myself on a bench between the two screens, the better to watch both. That was difficult at first, my attention diverted, eyes darting one way then the other. What did I see? I think the most lasting impression is “movement.” Images in motion. Some of them were abstract — tiny lights flickering and fluttering or shapes morphing across the screen. Bubbling emulsions. These passages could last quite a while. The cars, yes, and other “real” objects or places. Long corridors that the camera wanders down. A disco ball. A convex outdoor mirror, the kind they use to help you see around corners sometimes. Shadows of strange objects. Escalator stairs in motion. Buildings and steel “structures.” A close-up of a plant that, as the camera pulls back, is revealed to be behind a barbed wire fence. And speaking of barbed wire, razor wire. Quite a bit of razor wire. This list could go on, but just imagine these things moving along at a good clip though often in long takes, so you can “watch” the motion.

Nothing happens.

The images just travel along. But one more thing: The soundtrack, composed by French “electro-acoustic” composer Christian Renou. At first, during the traffic, I thought it was just a recording of “traffic,” but then I realized, no, that hum is “instrumental.” And it’s composed — it rises and falls in pitch and intensity, it changes shapes a bit, it moves along rapidly and relentlessly, just like the images. Oh. And it’s a little spooky. Or maybe that’s just me, because as relaxed as it’s possible to get on the benches, there’s an edge of anxiety that lurks somehow outside the frame.

After a time, more than half-an-hour, I got up to see the rest of the exhibition, which includes some photographs and ink drawings by Norris. This proved helpful. The photos also combine abstract shapes and patterns with real, readable objects. So, in “Signs” the backs of a stop sign and a railroad crossing sign flank a pattern and a shape that look as though they might be signs, too. Sometimes, it’s impossible to figure out where the abstract bits came from and sometimes its clear — they come from the most ordinary places. So the mundane, the “boring,” turns abstract or surreal in a sort of push-pull. Sometimes the images are “recognizable” and sometimes they disappear into themselves, into fragments of themselves, into constituent parts. Norris has an excellent eye, too, for the hard edge, the simple structure, the construct we understand, the irreducible “fact” — which he then takes beyond “factness” into a more speculative place. If I were looking for artistic reference points, I’d suggest he’s at the intersection of Charles Sheeler (American photographer/painter of machinery and simple functional buildings) and the Russian constructivists on one hand and Jean Arp and other surreal shape-shifters on the other. But somehow that sounds dismissive and incomplete.

Once I headed back into the films, the play between the mundane and the abstract/surreal was much clearer. Some patterns, I considered, don’t actually signify. They do something else, lead us toward another place we can’t quite “place.” I would say dream, but that’s not quite it: a dream is a reflection/distortion of that place in the same way Norris’s film is. They both suggest the place, which we’ll just label the “unconscious,” after Freud, to give it a name, but they don’t describe it. I know. This sounds hopelessly vague. All I’m really saying is that the experience of watching the movie is a little like moving through an unknown landscape at night in the rain and fog. You are never sure what you’re seeing. That’s where the anxiety comes in. And the beauty.

The city. The city at night and in the rain. And specifically the parts of the city that we usually speed by. Is Norris suggesting that we repair that city or repair ourselves? Maybe both, or maybe he thinks we are beyond repair. There are moments watching the film unspool that you imagine you’re dreaming, always a little behind the “meaning” curve of the images of the sequences. When you notice a link (and perhaps it’s even accidental though I doubt it) between a segment on one screen and a segment on the other, you realize you are awake and cognizant. And maybe that leads you to the conclusion that you therefore have some responsibility — to make sense of things, the razor wire and the corridor and the buildings and the moving shapes.

I like the light box you see as you enter the installation. “Reserve the right to remain silent.”

Infinitus has closed up shop at the New American Art Union, but Norris has curated a show at Newspace Center for Photography. It opens July 3 and includes 37 artists.