Artist, sports fan and educator NORM PARIS explores the allegories of decline present in western narratives of heroism. His sculptures and drawings frame the bodies of professional athletes like Michael Jordon and historical figures like George Washington as architectural ruins and fossils thus rethinking the myths surrounding monumentality. Norm received his BFA from The Rhode Island School of Design, where he is currently an Assistant Professor in Drawing, and his MFA from the Yale School of Art, where he was core faculty from 2003-2008. He is represented by The Proposition Gallery (New York) and his work is included in the West Collection. Norm lives in Brooklyn, New York.
OtherPeoplesPixels: What exactly is Forton MG? It seems to be your favorite material, and you stretch its capabilities in a lot of directions. What does it offer that other sculpture materials can't?Norm Paris: Forton MG is a casting mixture made of resin and gypsum, so it's part plastic, part plaster. There is something modern about the material’s synthetic nature; its plastic underbelly is “pop,” while its plaster-like appearance is classical. Forton is a shape-shifter, a chameleon. It is an aqueous solution that can be poured into any kind of mold, but it can also take on the properties of various metals and pigments. Lately I have been adding brass, iron and bronze powders to the mixture, which allows the cast to mimic metal. It can receive a patina just like metal can. The cast does contain metal, but the majority of the material, the binder, is something else. In that sense, it is both real and fake. Increasingly, I am using Forton in conjunction with other found materials and moving between different modes of sculpture and drawing. I want to avoid that point where material exploration becomes habit and expand the formal purview of the work.
OPP: The figure of Michael Jordan is a repeated motif in your work, appearing first in your 2005 sculpture installation Michael Jordan, Save The World. I'm not sure if you are a Michael Jordan fan, but I suspect your interest in basketball—or baseball or football—isn't purely artistic, aesthetic or critical. Do you identify as a sports fan?
NP: I loathed Michael Jordan when I was growing up in Cleveland, but he was unavoidable. He was the first sports figure to become a global brand. Just watch some highlights, maybe the 1988 Slam Dunk Contest, and you will find that Jordan is a Hellenistic sculptor and a performance artist. He uses the aesthetics of Michelangelo to sell himself as a god within the Arena. But at the time I was just angry that Ron Harper (guard, Cleveland Cavaliers) was nixed from the Dunk contest because of some stupid injury.MJ’s sudden fragility by the 2002-2003 season opened the door for a lot of that work from 2005-2009. He had physically declined in a way that made sports fans uncomfortable. Jordan couldn’t follow his own script. What caught my attention at the time—besides an unexpected fit of intense nostalgia—was how the discrepancy between the ideal and the real highlighted the faulty nature of the myth surrounding MJ. While I was working on the MJ installation in my Philadelphia basement studio in 2004, it struck me that I was making these sculptures of an athlete-as-hero while the country was at war, while the Weapons of Mass Destruction crisis was in full swing. My engagement seemed out of step with what was happening. I think Michael Jordan, Save The World was an awkward attempt to come to terms with an array of public, private and political concerns. My work has changed a lot since that piece, but ultimately I am still interested in the strange fragility of these monumental figures.So yes, I am a sports fan. But while I’m personally invested in pro sports, I’ve also become fascinated by the unstable allegories that underscore a game or a season, looking at the phenomenon the way that Roland Barthes looked at wrestling. Since the action in a game is in real time, stories are constantly created and then torn apart. Spectators—myself included—imbue players with heroic meanings only to find that this affect is obsolete a moment later. Someone dropped a ball, or missed a shot, or tore an ACL, or retired. Athletic allegories are inevitably temporary because of bodily limitations, changing circumstances and shifting opinion over time. Gravity brings us all down. Robert Smithson’s ideas about entropy don’t only apply to the earth and the ground, but also to the figure.
OPP: Michael Jordan: Disasters of War (2006-2009), your drawings and etchings which reference Goya's famed series of the same name, feature Michael Jordan as ALL the figures. Could you talk about this choice?NP: I am interested in the foggy and spastic relationships in the Disasters etchings because there is no chance to settle the dilemma. The lack of closure becomes the point. I wanted to construct narratives that were not necessarily linear. And so I substituted every figure from Goya’s original compositions with Jordan; this basic rule sets the stage for a Freudian sense of conflict—he saves and maims and kills himself. I thought a lot about dark humor when I was making these prints. The gratuitous nature of them and the ridiculousness of the situation was alternately funny, inappropriate and sad. Like in Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards, overwhelming and ironic violence is the embodiment of a complex and uncomfortable emotional space. In that film, like in these etchings, instincts of victimhood and aggression are in flux.I tend to find icons and to replace them whenever necessary. This happens in sports but is even more pronounced in the combustible narratives of politics. Goya’s original prints were protest etchings against the Peninsular War, and the inappropriate superimposition of Jordan calls a lot into question. I was looking at a fracture or conflation between this deflated leisure myth and a larger sense of real violence.
OPP: There is a shift away from the figure. It's not absolute, but it is noticeable. Afterwards there are more sculptures of precarious structures, which may or may not be ruins of buildings that once functioned, but definitely don't now. Can you talk about this intersection of architecture and mythic heroes, which was drawn out in your solo show The Wall Still Stands (2011) at The Proposition in New York?
NP: As I finished the Disasters etchings I became more interested in the space around the action rather than the figure itself. I made the sculpture Rubble Fragment I (Mezuzah), and I realized that a piece of concrete could become the heroic figure instead of a literal classical body. I used the same substitution rule that guided the Jordan prints in the Reconstruction drawings, but architectural structures like two-by-fours and cinder blocks were the stand-in for human presence. Some of the drawings become defunct altars or shrines; others are failed utopian building projects.I wanted to allow for a wider array of subject matter rather than harping on one obvious signifier. The architectural structures from the drawings are based on figures from sports clippings I've received from my father over the years and screen shots from old footage of baseball games, but they are heavily camouflaged. Bridge/Fortress/Hillis began as a sculpture of the former Cleveland Browns running back Payton Hillis. Holding It Together (Pistol Pete) is based on Zurbaran's Saint Serapion. I was interested in the fragility of the structure, and its simultaneous sense of building and decay. This work explores some of the same terrain as the more overt sculptures and prints; but now I am encoding, encasing and cutting apart the source. Human form is roughly translated to architecture or rock formation. I’ve been looking at old sports writers like Henry Grantland Rice, who had a tendency to rename the heroes of the day as immovable rocks or some other monumental vision; the 1936 Fordham Rams for example, were coined the “Fordham Wall” and their offensive line was “The Seven Blocks of Granite.” This type of metaphor can be found in all sorts of places, from Percy Bysshe Shelley's Ozymandias to Pink Floyd's The Wall.
OPP: What do George Washington and Caesar have in common with Pistol Pete, Michael Jordan, Vince Lombardi, Jim Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger?
NP: I witnessed all these figures through the lens of reproduction as a primary source of aura. Growing up, the distance of the photograph, print or video, and now the internet, allowed me to fill these vessels with my own meanings. There are countless posters of Michael Jordan stuck in mid-air as if he could levitate forever. Even the painting George Washington Crossing The Delaware is a fabrication which is only loosely based on historical fact, and yet this vision is as real as it gets. These people have been worshipped, albeit in vastly different times and places. While there are qualitative differences that separate them—George Washington actually did effect the world more than Pistol Pete—I am more interested in these icons as the embodiment of an internal response to popular American mythologies. They are mostly boyhood visions of manhood, all of which are more complicated than they initially appeared.
OPP: If you absolutely had to pick—pretend the world will end if you don't—would you rather go to an art opening or a sporting event?NP: That’s like picking a favorite child. The question presents a false choice. I can have my cake and eat it too. I was drawing on my apartment floor as I watched game 7 of the 1997 World Series. And besides, sporting events can be art. Robert Smithson always talked about how the movies that were the most important to him and his peers were the B-movies, the sci-fi movies rather than the art flicks. These cultural artifacts were the platform on which he built his work. He was also immensely well-read and informed about art history, and he was certainly a part of the art world. He was intimately invested in all of his obsessions, and he reveled in the fact that he did not have to choose. I feel the same way.A live basketball game is a singularity. It happens in real time and only exists in that moment. I suppose the artwork is at face value more static (unless it is performative or interactive), but certainly the experience of the work is also singular since it is specific to that time and place.
While I love the community aspect of the art opening, the support for the work of friends and peers, the reality is that there is more flexibility in seeing an art show—and art openings are often the absolute worst time to view the work. The sporting event is often the ideal venue to view the spectacle. And so, from a situational and phenomenological point of view, I choose the game.
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and existential significance of participating in mediated culture in her embroidery, video, sculpture and collage works. She received her MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2006), where she will begin teaching in Spring 2013, and is currently a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT Residency in Chicago. Notable exhibitions include Losing Yourself in the 21st Century (Maryland Art Place, Baltimore), MP3 (The Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago), Please Stand By: Stacia Yeapanis + Readymade (Baang & Burne Contemporary, New York), Over and Over Again (BOLT Project Space, Chicago).