Sunday, July 29, 2012

Norman Towle: St. Petersburg's Henry Darger?

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Last night I hit the opening of one of the more exciting and challenging gallery shows I've seen in a while. The show is at the Venture Compound, a D.I.Y. music and art space in St. Petersburg, FL, and the opening coincided with the 29th installation of the Pangaea Project, an ambitious noise/avante-garde series curated by the Venture group.  The art is by Norman Towle, who died recently at the age of 99.  The show is said to encompass 95% of the work Towle produced in his lifetime.

Knowing Towle's story is key to understanding why this apparently unassuming work is so interesting.  After spending time in the Merchant Marine, Towle attended a technical art institute, then spent several decades as a commercial art retoucher, largely working for the New York Times.  He retired to Florida, only after which, apparently, he actually began to produce art of his own.

And what art.  The works - over a hundred of them - cover everything from local St. Petersburg landscapes, portraits of public figures, nonspecific scenes of everything from dancing to ocean life, abstract works that include elements of collage, and a little bit of softcore pornography.  These are all rendered in a hand that can be described as inexpert, even clumsy.

But the whole body of work, and many of its individual pieces, are profoundly absorbing and multidimensional.  This interest isn't because the work is 'good' in any conventional sense, either technically or because it advances some coherent, self-conscious aesthetic or social message.  Towle falls in that troubled and weird category known with measured condescension as 'folk art' - works and artists whose interest derives from the unselfconsciousness of their process, which allows them to represent, at best, a set of truths as deep as those in more conventional 'high' art.

In Towle's work, as in those of so much folk art, those truths are dual-edged.  On the one hand, when we connect Towle's story to his work, we see the way that modern society can limit human possibility.  These paintings show a man with a profoundly foreshortened vision of life, someone attracted primarily to the most banal of public figures and the safest modes of existence.  There are numerous pictures here of 'beautiful' farmhouses, churches, golf courses, suburban homes, and parking lots (!), and dozens of portraits of presidents and film stars and singers and models. Towle, at least according to his paintings, saw the world exactly as NBC, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff would have wanted him to.

At the same time, the traces of his own life in Towle's paintings show, through no intent of the artist, what utter lies he was reproducing.  Just as his life fulfilling the commands of others seems to have left him with little ability to reflect critically on the culture around him, decades of touching up other people's images as part of a process that reduced art to nothing but another industrial, assembly-line product seems to have left Towle himself with an imperfect command of fundamental artistic principles of perspective, figure, and color.  His apparent naive reverence for Pope John Paul and suburban normality, filtered through the imperfections that this banal world imposed on his abilities, reveals the absurdity, beauty, and even brutality of modern 'everyday life.'

There's also something profoundly troubling about a man trained in 'art' who produced no work of his own until retiring from his career in the art world.  There's a particular piece here that captures that poignancy - a desolately kitsch landscape of a flower garden, which nonetheless stands out from the other paintings in its technical refinement.  This is apparently another artist's work that Towle gave a few small touch-ups . . . and then signed.  It's one of those instances where the unvarnished reality of folk art manages to convey the desperation and sadness of the human condition far more effectively than 'high' art.  Here and elsewhere, Towle's work, in its way, shows the darkness that lies beneath the facade of normality better than Francis Bacon's.

But Towle's work also shows the ability of people to transcend the limits imposed on them by society.  Every observation of Towle's technical limitations comes with the caveat that a great deal of this work was completed when he was in his 80s and 90s, with a hand that would have been unsteady for reasons having nothing to do with skill.  That he persevered at that age at producing any art at all is some kind of testament to human creative energy.  And there's a real joy to lot of the paintings,  something that could be seen as either childlike or just sincere.  It's particularly worth remembering that, as someone born in the early 1920s, who served in the military during the 1940s, Towle would have been close to enough darkness in his life that he might not have had much interest in reproducing it.  What looks to people my age like suburban banality and empty-headed celebrity culture may have been a fully justified retreat to psychic safety for those brutalized by world history and the machinations of social elites.

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