Interview by Catherine Haggarty, East Coast Contributor
Catherine Haggarty (CH): Can you tell us about your first inclinations to be an artist? What were the first moments that you knew you would be an artist?
Norm Paris (NP): I don’t think that I ever understood what being an artist meant when I was younger, but I did like to make stuff. I made drawings of superheroes with my brother and cousins. We were all comic book collectors, baseball card collectors, and...sort of anything that you could get more than one of became a “collection” for us. So, I guess my connection to being an artist was through these retrograde mass media formats, most of which were meant to revere or immortalize a male subject. As a boy growing up in Cleveland, this was elemental, for better or worse. Of course, I began to realize how narrow and fraught a lens this is, but I was already pretty far down the path before I recognized the larger cultural weirdness inherent in this sort of hero worship.
CH: Your ongoing body of work of drawing and painting over baseball cards is massive and in and of itself, has created an installation within your studio. Can you tell us what started your habits of drawing and painting over baseball cards?
NP: This project started while I was commuting to Dumbo from Greenpoint, during my time at the Sharpe-Walentas studio program in 2015-16. It began as a solution to a long subway commute. I like to read, and I usually have a sketchbook, but I was frustrated with the ephemerality of those activities. At the time, I was feeling stuck in my studio, and I wanted an “automatic” project, something that could almost self-generate without censoring or editing.
So, I stumbled upon my old baseball, football, and basketball cards buried deep in the closet. I wanted to resuscitate these things or to recycle them into a new form. Plus, they’re portable. It’s an idea that I loosely borrowed from the artist Dawn Clements – this idea of “travel drawings” that can build on themselves in ways that aren’t always predictable. The project has evolved from a drawing pursuit, to a collage pursuit, to a painting pursuit, and on. There is a randomness to them; fringe professional athletes becoming monuments to be stored, or geological specimens, or molds to be poured, or unfinished sculptures in the process of being carved, or just absences. They become abstract – the card itself is a sort of portable monument or relic, even more so when there isn’t a depictive element. Lately, I have been carving into the cards and sanding them down until the original print is completely erased – sort of monument to forgetting – tiny little Towers of Babel.
CH: In your studio, we spoke about using sports as a metaphor in art and in life – particularly about the failure and winning aspect. To you, what does your relationship to sports growing up have to do with your work now as an artist and professor?
NP: I’d rather treat the subject of sports as a metaphor rather than an end in itself, but it is a messed up metaphor. The meanings that get projected upon athletes (or musicians or politicians or any public figure/spectacle) are just as complex as those that are discussed in art. The most sadistic part of the sports metaphor is the notion of success and failure. The idea of “winning” is poisonous, and (it) plays into a hierarchical – almost fascistic - idea of ordering. Our current president is obsessed with winning.
In more recent years, I have focused on what I think of as “almost figures” – the ones that seem as though they didn’t quite achieve the thing that they set out to do. I think that there is an approachability to the people that stumble or mess up. It forces a more existential discussion about labor and achievement and sense of self. Failure is more universal – and not the fashionable art world posturing of “failure” – but rather the unromantic and awkward kind of failure that really feels like shit. Earnest Byner fumbling the ball at the goal line at the end of the 1987 AFC Championship game was not a savvy postmodern critique. It was a gut-punch for Clevelanders. Roky Erickson did not go to an insane asylum during the summer of love so that he could become a more interesting musician – he made a mistake and was cornered in the middle of Texas. Neither made it to monument status.
CH: Within the context of sports and the art world, there are varying degrees of success one can achieve. I am curious – to you, what is your definition of success as an artist?
NP: The idea of “winning” as the embodiment of success in sports is potentially harmful to the kind of creative state that I need when I am working in the studio. If success equates to narrow models of exhibition career and commercial success, then possibilities become really limited. What about other models? In my experience, the best opportunities are the ones that come from good conversations with peers. This is what we try to foster at Tiger Strikes Asteroid – we are certainly a gallery but we’re really a think tank to create access for a broad array of artists.
Maybe the best way sports can be applicable to the arts is that in both worlds, it is important to work with others in some capacity, to practice, and to find a level of pleasure in the pursuit. Finding a community is important. Being in the studio feels good. It’s really hard to control anything beyond that.
CH: Your geode sculptures are often cut in half, opening up another world from the representational exterior. There seems to be a consistent theme of fracturing and rupturing forms – whether 2D or 3D. Can you elaborate on why this seems to happen often in your work?
NP: For a few years, I’ve been thinking about converting the sculptures and drawings to appear as geological artifacts. By making a person into a relic or a sculpture or a geode, it opens up the opportunities for material metaphors around ideas of conservation, neglect, archeology, and display.
Cutting open the sculpture feels like an act of inspection – physical and psychological. I frequently think about the relationship between the outside of something and the inside of it. There’s an element of surprise. Pouring into these molds, I can’t see what has transpired until the end. Cutting the form apart destroys the thing, yet makes it at the same time. It’s an act of creative aggression.
CH: How do your heritage and gender influence the way you navigate your subjects in your work?
NP: They are always elemental to our work, whether we know it or not, whether we choose to address it frontally or not, right? For me, my maleness, my Midwestern-ness, and my Jewish-ness all play a role in the things I make and more generally, how I approach my labor.
I’m named Norm, after an uncle who passed away before I was born; while it’s maybe not exclusively a Jewish tradition to name an offspring after a deceased ancestor, it’s definitely a part of Jewish culture that has led me to who I am. And the remembering, tallying, and mythologizing of the past – this is something that is a core part of my family life and Jewish life. I grew up around stories of this relative, feeling very close to him but also very far away. That is how it is with heroes.
I had an important dream somewhere in my early 20’s. In the dream, I was simply embracing an unnamed family member who was simultaneously my uncle and my grandfather – both long gone – but when I pulled back and looked at him, he was also the famous football coach Vince Lombardi! It made absolutely no sense and it made perfect sense. These were all men who had reached heroic status, who had been revered either privately or publicly, and whom I had never met. That (dream) influenced my approach of deeply investigating these male icons.
CH: Your large drawings are physical and sensitive. They seem to be representing monuments, statues, or figures in distress or decay. The line work is hyper-specific and operates at different levels of clarity with varying distances of viewing. Can you walk us through your thinking in the making of these massive drawings?
NP: I was actually thinking about them as unfinished monuments – like subtractive sculptures in the process of being carved out of stone. But as they have continued, there is this ambiguity concerning where they are in their trajectory. They could be decaying structures, too.
These large ones are actually derived from the athletes on the sports cards, though I like that the source is further removed. They’re made by constructing a cubic volume around the figure via projective systems, and then “carving away” to allude to the presence of the figure. I also like to build up the texture of the drawing through making rubbings from the remnants of old castings. The larger scale leads to a trippy kind of interaction with the surface.
CH: Are you seeing the depiction of statues, heroes, and monuments crumbling or in static states as political?
NP: I have been wanting to make images of abject things with these slower, anachronistic methods. I don’t see this as a craft issue as much as it is a collision of ethics and maybe even politics. Building an image of a faulty monument, or a “false god” as we Jews might call it, is a weird and very human thing to do. But to me, they also become like Scholar’s Stones - objects of contemplation.
NP: One thing always seems to infect the other. I’ll curate a show with Jackie [Hoving], then that impacts a project that I give my students, and ultimately, is reflected in whatever is happening in the studio. It may be a bit cliché, but these different activities turn out to be pretty symbiotic. It happens without me knowing it. Sometimes, I will harp on a point with my students in a way that is a bit too outsized and then realize later that the specific idea is part of a new studio exploration. This definitely happened with my focus on monuments, and also more generally with ideas around seriality and the card project; I just finished up teaching this Iterative Drawing class that was basically an outgrowth of my studio.
CH: On a light, closing note, what is your favorite studio snack?
NP: Kale. Oh just kidding, I’m not that classy. Doritos. Ok, that’s also a lie, although that would be my preferred snack. What do I usually eat in the studio? Egg sandwiches and coffee all the way.
All images: courtesy of the artist.