Norma López, Screen artist
José L. Falconi
Norma Lopez is angry. And she is angry with good reasons. What follows is the story of her frustration and, more importantly, the way in which such frustration has derived into a practice that is as resourceful as it is surprising.
“I was angry with God,” she said to me not long ago as we sat down to have lunch in a café near her large studio in Lawrence, MA. It was a sunny day following weeks of reduced social exposure due to COVID-19, and the unsettledness and fearlessness of her words contrasted with the very fragile “new normality” we had just forged after weeks of confinement and which, paradoxically, produced more nostalgia for a recent past that one might like to admit. (Between us, what was so great about February 2020, all things considered, to long for it so intensely to idealize it under the slippery fulcrum of desire?)
Retrieving the past might pose more than just one problem at the same time. Listening to the candor in her way of storytelling, a tale stitched by deep gender inequalities and punctuated by her enormous resolve to do what was in her power to honor her call to do what she’d always wanted to do – make art—begged more than one question about the complex relations between authenticity and selfhood.
In the particular case of Norma, her story stroked an unfortunate yet familiar tone, as it confirmed the vast gender inequality for women in the Americas, which made her discard her career plans more than one time (once she was actually accepted into the Astronomy Department at the University of Minnesota). Despite coming from a family of means in Colombia and marrying a successful MD with whom she has formed a beautiful family–or maybe precisely because of those things—she could only devote herself to her passion later in life. In fact, just as countless remarkable women, who have been able to resume their careers only once their children grew up and left the nest, Norma is now finally able to devote time to her work and commit herself to her career – and she is relentless.
The room of one’s own, in Norma’s case, is a large studio in an old mill now converted into artist’s work spaces and small manufacturing companies. The enormous windows fill the space with large swathes of bright natural light which illuminate the almost twenty years of work that is stored and displayed there. Although she was barred many times from a formal artistic education, the amount of work the artist has produced is impressive; a testament to how Norma persevered and managed to start painting, eventually producing the large-scale sculptural projects artfully displayed in her studio. Perhaps the most salient feature of her work, at first glance, is precisely such massiveness.
The large scale works that adorn her walls are discarded screens that she rescues from the trash pile. She carefully opens up the usually broken tvs and repurposes their internal parts, keeping always the dark but glaring screen. She then sits them on a table where she applies hefty and agitated splatters of paint which sometimes are only visible due to the backlight she inserts in them. In other words, to a degree Norma ends up (re)producing a refurbished tv, only that this time it is her expressive output which is “projected” onto the screen and from there to the viewers.
It is impossible not to see a connection between the huge format of her projects and her own resolve; as if it was not sufficient for her to leave a small mark of her existence but, rather, one that made clear her presence. This statement ensured that her work (and she herself too) would not go unnoticed by anyone. Such insistence, which is expressed in an incredible determination, sometimes resembling obstinacy, might offer us the first clue about her work as an artist. In fact, what could be more apt for an artist of such tenacity than to establish her practice by proving and extending the life of materials we discard?
Actually, it is in the pile of discarded daily items, amidst everyone else’s detritus, where Norma begins her artistic operations. As I stated before, her objects of choice are usually large black televisions, typically broken past the point of recognition. Following their recollection, she then proceeds to open them up, to dismantle them until she gets to what she considers its core: the feeble, delicate screen over which everything is projected and amplified.
The fact that she ostensibly finds what can arguably be the most outer layer of the television, the screen, and transforms it as the work’s core aspect is something that should not be taken lightly. Actually, this conflation might hold the key to her work. The screen, for Norma, is the locus where she furiously intervenes – scratching, covering, masking, dripping, etc. – in the hopes that she herself can be inserted into the turbulent waters of contemporary artistic production and its contested tradition. As with many others before her, it is her new life on the screen—the life she infuses and recreates atop the screens, to be more precise—which allows her to not only fulfil her expressive needs but also to place such expression within a defined tradition bolstered by a unique material support. In other words, to finally insert herself into a recognized artistic practice; to become an artist.
Stylistically the screen has proved immensely important for her practice as she transitioned from a flat plane into a notably more sculptural realm. It is as if the screen itself in its materiality (its transparency and ethereal quality), provided an invitation to project beyond the darkened surface –an invitation to push into a volumetric reality or at least to stage the illusion of such volume, as in a diorama.
There is a pristine metaphor buried somewhere here: as if the newly granted life extension of the screen was perfectly synchronous with Norma’s own life extensions, resulting in the most appropriate canvas for her work. In fact, it is particularly revelatory that it has been over the darkened surface of the screen that Norma has created some of her most memorable pieces. Seemingly, the screen is also the medium in which her strong, expressive hand feels most at home for which it would not be an overstretch to conclude (winkingly) that Norma was actually always meant for the screen.
I say this because it is clear that through the use of the screen, Norma’s embracing of abstraction has reached a point of non-departure. If before she was still seduced by figuration, it is now clear that such escapades are over, as she has concentrated the strength of her work to a variant of abstract expressionism. And the results are outstanding in terms of the effect of freedom she is able to convey in each of the screens. Malevich notwithstanding, I would venture to say that the trajectory towards reaching abstraction is always more tortuous than we might assume. Somehow, it feels as though figuration in the West is our native tongue—we might be able to learn and be fluent in another language, but figuration will never be far afield—and Norma has clearly departed from it. There is something particular to the materiality of the screens which has reinforced her commitment to an abstract language even pushing her to embrace a sort of geometrism that was absent from her prior work.
Whether this still shy foray into geometrism proves to be a venue that she might end up taking, it will open up a number of interesting expressive possibilities for Norma as it could compound the screen as a unique place for projection of repetitive patterns and forms. In fact, insofar the screen always conjures a projective quality, it has contributed to the sculptural dimension that she now continues to explore in her pieces. The screen, despite (or, perhaps, due to) its almost ethereal quality, opens up a sculptural realm as it necessarily, constitutively, delineates the contours of a (sculptural) space.
Following her instincts, Norma intervenes the ambiguous confines of the screen, and thus reformulates the sense of space surrounding it. Through the use of the backlight, she carefully delineates her objects as if they were perceptual fields: partly painting, partly sculpture, partly projections –a conjunction of dimensions gathered together in a fragile internal equilibrium. This slight delineation of field might serve as the ultimate image of what Norma is attempting to pull by intervening the screens. The success of her whole operation may need to be very precise in staging a sense of fragility despite her strength –just as the diorama confuses reality by supplanting a unique level of fiction. Her journey has been arduous, but this difficulty is carefully masked in her artmaking process through the ambiguousness of space of her screens. Resisting a static point, where there is no here nor there, artmaking has been Norma’s way to achieve a version of herself –and she has done so in dramatic fashion.
And precisely for my very own dramatic purposes, let me finish these brief notes on her work by posing one last connection between the recycling the televisions and Norma’s endurance to keep her life-long calling alive—a journey in which she has clearly prevailed. As I said before there is something particularly telling about the fact that mass-produced screens have become a natural canvas for her work, as it also sheds light on the very limited life afforded to objects that surround us after the irruption of cheap, easily discardable goods coming mostly from Asia, circa 1990s. Indeed, the fact that it is now cheaper to reject than it is to repair is perhaps the most telling signs of our time; we discard before trying to fix, we throw away before we try to improve. But it seems that there is actually a second life for those, like Norma, who await until we turn of off the lights to start their “real lives,” and who are capable of not only prolonging the life of objects, but who persist until they start seeing the world as the screen in which their very own dreams are worth being projected onto. Afterall, there might be nothing more authentic to oneself than her/his projection onto the world.
It is not just poetic justice, therefore, at play here. Norma’s path and struggle pushes us to dare to think a bit beyond the usual parameters and vouch for the reparatory capacity of art. Norma’s journey shows us not just as sort of unique restoration of her life through an artistic practice, but also shows us that when perseverance pays off, only second acts might the ones that actually matter.
Boston, Dec 2020
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