Ignorance Ain't Bliss When It Ends Up Like This, 2012. Acrylic and oil on canvas. 72 x 52 inches.
FELICITA NORRIS's large-scale, figurative paintings are disturbing, empathy-evoking and ambiguous. The intimacy of confined domestic spaces is the setting for power dynamics to play out. Physical bondage is mostly self-imposed, but hints at the possibility of violence. And yet, these haunting works are metaphors for emotional truths, not stories to be taken literally. Felicita earned her BFA at San Francisco Art Institute (2013) and her MFA at Stanford University in California. She has exhibited at Root Division (2014 and 2015), SOMArts (2014) and Glass Rice Gallery (2017), all
in San Francisco. Felicita is currently Visiting Faculty at San
Francisco Art Institute. She lives and works in San Francisco.
I can’t decide if I’m more concerned about the subjects’ bodies or
their psychological well-being. How much of the visual signs of physical
violence are intended to point to psychological violence?
Felicita Norris: This is an excellent question. When I give talks, I make sure to mention that the works are metaphors, or rather, dystopian fantasies. They are not literal; they’re paintings. The paradox in the work is that, at times, I choose to paint realistically and figuratively, which causes discomfort because it’s relatable and tangible. The works are interpretations of memories growing up in a tumultuous household and the effects of that, as well as my experience as a multi-racial woman, then and now. But again, they are not real. They are an altered reality, which is what painting is, in essence.
I often use myself as the character because, for one, I’m available, but even more so, I am given the opportunity to represent others like myself. Sometimes it’s hard to stomach, but I realize that I can be a voice for the past and the present. Is it my responsibility? I don’t know yet. I have looked to performance artists like Karen Finley for inspiration and use experiences of all kinds to examine the human psyche. I wonder, why do we do what we do? How do certain experiences affect certain people? My intention however, is not to advocate violence, but rather to allow room for introspection, if that’s what the viewer chooses to do.
Thank you for the worthless day. 2015. Acrylic and oil on canvas. 96 x 48 inches.
OPP: Plastic tarps or drop cloths show up in several
paintings. In some cases, they seem mostly self-imposed, but no less
disturbing. How do you think about these drop cloths in Thank you for a worthless day (2015) as opposed to About a Boy (2015) and Outlet (2015)?
FN: I appreciate the “self-imposed” comment. If you look closely, all of the actions in the works are self-imposed, yet escapable. The idea for Thank you for the worthless day started out as female body examination and ideas about shame with regard to youth versus age, mother and child, potentially, and how American media celebrates certain aspects of womanhood and not others. For me, the whole scenario is ridiculous because I know it is self-imposed, but the characters are faceless or “hooded” because it allows the viewer to enter the space without having to recognize the “who” - the viewer is left to decide whether they are the voyeur or the participant. The difference in the use of plastic from one painting to another is again, a metaphor for the act of painting itself. We don’t paint to document anymore, so the conversation remains, why is this so important? So I talk about the plasticity of the act of painting as well as the falseness of the content that at one time could have been “real.”
Bitch in Sheep's Clothing. 2014. Acrylic and oil on canvas. 84 x 56 inches.
Can you talk about other forms of confinement in your paintings? It’s
not just in the drop cloths, but also in the tight spaces and the
FN: The idea of confinement is another contradiction. Of course it depends on how you view tight spaces. Some people are terrified and others feel a sense of security. It also depends on how you view life and death, in a way. For example, some cultures embrace death as part of life, so they celebrate it, not because they don’t feel loss, but because they hope for continuation; other cultures fear death and hide it or choose to prolong suffering. But this is all my opinion—I’m very in between how I feel about confinement; I like to be held by loving arms or blankets, but on the other hand, the idea of feeling trapped is terrifying to me. I’m still trying to figure out how to visually and mentally balance these two ideas…
OPP: Have you ever used trigger warnings in a show or been asked to?
FN: No, I have never used or been asked to use trigger warnings for a show. I think it’s implied that the works are not photographs, which could be taken as fact, but these are fantasies, not facts.
Untitled (hanging legs), 2015. Oil on linen. 50 x 24 inches.
OPP: How often does the content of your work lead viewers to
tell you stories about their personal lives? Do they feel a
permissiveness because of the intimacy? Or are they generally too shy to
talk to you about the content?
FN: Early on, I noticed
that many people enjoyed finding a way to relate to the content of my
work. I think it makes people feel safer. I do get some personal
stories, or “this reminds me of…” comments as well. I think what the
viewer contributes to the work is just as important as the work itself.
Artist Gregory Crewdson
said as much about the content of his own work as well. And yes, the
viewers who want to, will talk about how they feel about the work, and
others, understandably, are too shy to talk about it. But I think any
reaction is a good reaction, and for me, misinterpretation is expected.
Not White Enough, 2014. Acrylic and oil on canvas. 96 x 64 inches.
OPP: Not White Enough (2014) stands out for me from the
other works in that it points to the collective psychological effects
of white supremacy as opposed to the power dynamics within a domestic
space among individuals. Is this a false distinction in your opinion?
How does Not White Enough relate to other works painted in 2014?
FN: Not White Enough does stand alone because it represents a shift from the early melodramatic family portraits to something more subtle. I do like the drama of the previous works, but this type of work allows the viewer to enter because everything is not given at once. The viewer can easily place themselves into the scenario, and it allows for more questioning. The painting literally portrays a person who pulled a sheet over themselves and had their photo taken. But there is definitely something else going on. I chose to title this painting Not White Enough because for me, the concept of not being white enough comes from self-projected, self-critical, defensive and assumptive ideas based on observations that contribute to stereotypes about how white men view women of color. The persona of the white man functions as another important, yet undefined and even unseen character in my work, representing my personal desire and “his” perceived fetish for what is exotic or different: To him my “race” signifies ignorance, hyper-sexuality and disposability. Again, the viewer can see what they choose to see…
Folie à deux, 2012. Acrylic on canvas. 68 x 82 inches
OPP: That fetishization by the white male of the brown, female body is so clear in Folie à deux (2012), which is for me one of the most unsettling works. It's one of the most difficult to look at because my first read is one of sexual violation. I imagine that the woman is being held captive over a period of time, unable to escape. I want to help her escape. And yet, my eye keeps being drawn to the man's face, and I find myself wondering if he is feeling tenderness—which then infuriates me because he's holding this woman hostage! How do you see the relationship between these two figures? Do you see this painting differently 5 years later?
FN: Your read is correct in that the woman is being held captive; but again, it is not forced, instead, it is self-imposed. I purposely gave no real indication that the woman’s hands were bound, thus leaving her free to free herself… This painting is more of a reflection on "woman as martyr," much like the deposition and lamentation paintings of Christ by Baroque artists like Caravaggio and Rubens. Because she is a woman of color, the political implications to her potentially being a slave are heightened because of her white “partner.” And the man does look loving, because he is; the contradiction however, is that she is not his prisoner, but her own. As an artist, I find myself struggling to transcend the metaphorical and visual capacity that this painting embodies, but I do see it as having the same meaning as it did five years ago. I am in a different place now, mentally and emotionally, so sometimes I ruminate on the painting when I see it again, and sometimes I reflect on how much I have grown since then.
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006 Stacia was a 2011-2012 Artist-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include shows at Siena Heights University (Michigan 2013), Heaven Gallery (Chicago 2014), the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (Chicago 2014), The Stolbun Collection (Chicago 2017) and Indianapolis Art Center (Indiana 2017). In March 2018, her solo installation Where Do We Go From Here? will open at Robert F. DeCaprio Art Gallery (Palos Hills, Illinois). In conjunction, the atrium will exhibit two-dimensional artwork by artists who were invited by Stacia to make new work also titled Where Do We Go From Here?