The image of a massive dog’s head staring down a hallway glows against the night darkness in one of the windows of the cathedral-like atrium of a former Cadillac dealership at the busy intersection of Van Ness and O’Farrell in downtown San Francisco. Flanked on either side by a pair of crippled women, one of whom lacks arms, the dog is depicted licking wooden floorboards. Passersby and even cars slow to gawk in confusion at the nearly six-foot-tall, brightly lit image, and then come to a complete stop to consider some of the dog’s compatriots: scenes shining forth from the building’s other windows include a woman with a large, black moon face holding a whip; a tree populated by raven-like creatures with human heads; and an apocalyptic urban scene featuring a man in a chicken suit relaxing in a lounge chair, while below him green-skinned figures are sucked into an abyss.
These are only a few of the 17 scenes displayed in the grand old atrium, and together they comprise a set of images which is titled Crazyology by its creator, the Bay Area artist David Normal. Suspended by wires from the room’s 25 foot ceiling, all of the scenes are fully-illuminated from within, generating their own light to cast their likenesses over the space around them. The artist calls them “Illuminations”–designs created as original oil paintings, but then enlarged to huge scale and transferred onto self-illuminating surfaces. Those who enter the building find that the scenes even come complete with their own soundtracks, with motion detectors triggering samples that include laughter, trains rushing by, party chatter, and a howling theremin. Crazyology indeed, or as some passersby question, just crazy?
This reaction–with the viewer poised equally on the cusps of confusion and awe–is exactly what Normal wants. His hallucinatory images appear to flow from the deepest recesses of consciousness, as if they had spilled forth from the mother of all dreams. Figures engaged in bizarre–and often violent or erotic–actions are interwoven in tight tableaus that often fill the entire image space, linked together like monkeys in a barrel. Not so much parts of a narrative, the figures create baffling juxtapositions. Stylistically the images have been compared to the likes of Robert Williams or illuminations,, but in fact the work is inspired by a set of influences as disparate and random as the content of the scenes themselves. The artist’s zoomorphic forms are inspired by Northern Renaissance masters, for instance, and his muscular figures and contorted poses are reminiscent of early Mannerism, as if Timothy Leary had come in and rearranged Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. There are numerous other archaic referents to be found in this curious puzzle–Normal’s Chemical Imbalance, for example, is composed around the form of the Kaballah, and contains quotes from Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa, and an Escher lithograph.
It is this dizzying and complex fusion that Normal calls Crazyology–taken from a Charlie Parker song, the term is more than just a title of the exhibit, it is intended as a description of the mishmash of influences in the artist’s work. Normal explains:
The list of art techniques and philosophies that exploited and exulted in the irrational is a long and distinguished history that I would sum up as Crazyology….When people ask me what my style is, I say, Crazyology, and that way I have my own term for my work, and I can also refer to all the great crazy stuff that has inspired me – Surrealism, Punk, Dada, Pop Art, Psychedelic Art, etc.
The term Crazyology also aligns Normal’s work with another precedent, the surrealist probing of the unconscious, and in particular the work of Salvador Dalí, who described his own working method as “Paranoic Critical,” attempting to find inspiration by bringing himself to a state of near madness. Absorbed by the artist, all of these influences pour forth from him in a torrent. Normal affirms
All that stuff was based in different ways on being intentionally irrational,being methodically mad, being “Crazyological.”
And here on Van Ness, with the manic faces and quirkily obscure details of the Illuminations shining brilliantly from all corners of the room, the grand old atrium is transformed into a temple for all that is crazy.
For those who know the artist, a show of this scale has been a long time coming. As a bright, precocious, and ambitious teenager, Normal was already familiar to many within the Bay Area art scene, and he spent several years poised to be one of the next big names. In addition to his work as a painter, he produced a series of happenings in the late ’90s, and was part of the burgeoning Burning Man art scene, creating in 2000 a full-scale production called the Giant Anus. Styled after a Broadway-type musical, and featuring a twenty five foot tall sculpture of a sphincter and a cast of 45 people, Normal’s show was performed on the final night of Burning Man in front of an audience of 20,000.
Despite his success with such extravagant productions, Normal has always considered himself primarily a painter, and even though seemingly everyone agreed he had nearly unlimited potential, he began to fall off the grid. An aversion to standard gallery practice had distanced him from the mainstream of the art world. The choice was the artist’s own, to gain greater freedom. He had come to conclude that
Galleries didn’t do much for me except offer some space, and often times with a lot of restrictions and complications.
And while working outside that system presents inherent difficulties, for an artist as independent-minded as Normal, it has always been worth the risk.
Normal’s self-imposed seclusion from the gallery scene was compounded, however, as he fell further off the art world’s map–literally so–through a period living as an expatriot, primarily in Indonesia. The five-year exile included the study of local spirit possession rituals, and was sometimes thrilling. But while Indonesia exerted a profound influence on his vision as an artist, it also severely limited his opportunities, and in the end he grew antsy. He says in retrospect:
I began to feel that some of the best years of my life were slipping by me, and that my career as an artist was just languishing hopelessly.
He felt he had no choice to return, and came back to the Bay Area in 2005.
It was in 2009 that Normal began his experiments with Illuminations by transferring his paintings to light-emitting surfaces. He does not consider his medium to be light itself, however, since the focus is always on the design of the original painting being transferred, but the switch was a way to set his work apart by giving it special emphasis.
The motivation was to create a unique way of showing my work
he reveals, emphasizing that his intent in creating The Illuminations was not to create a new medium or commercial product, but simply to maximize the display potential of the images.
He would succeed in taking his painted designs to a new and vibrant plateau, but working with self-illuminating surfaces initially presented technical difficulties. Normal began with the same kind of backlit media used by sign makers, and a lengthy period of experimentation followed. His current technique involves placing prints of his designs onto acrylic sheets that are lit by LEDs, which transmit the light to fiberoptic particles to create an even dispersion. Most recently, Normal has begun to combine both printing and painting on the same sheets, which are then placed over the illuminated backing. The results of this fusion are on display in the current show, which in fact is hybrid of large format printing, painting, and digital collage.
As a title for a body of works, “Illuminations” presents diverse meanings. On the most obvious level, it simply refers to the fact that these images create their own light, but the term can also refer to the bringing of knowledge. Normal claims that he intended only the former meaning. He insists
I did not attempt to make a double entendre of any kind. I don’t actually ‘intend’ meanings, let alone double meanings, rather I find meaning through the process of expressing myself. So, the name ‘Illumination’ was a pragmatic choice since there are few words in English to describe something being lit up, and as far as I know, ‘Illumination’ is the most poetic.
Normal’s disavowal of the implications of his series title is a bit coy, however. He is a highly literate artist, and admits that in choosing the title, he was invoking a reference to Arthur Rimbaud, who also called his collection of poems “Illuminations.” He then goes on to divulge how his own metaphysic is related to the emanation of light.
I consider my imagery to emanate from my own personal, indwelling ‘Pleroma’, . . . (which is) a useful metaphysical construct of early Christian theology that symbolizes the undifferentiated, unformed, unborn mass of consciousness that is continually generating our experience of being.
He see this as
a dark place that lies within us and that we cannot really know, but that through delving into we will find meaning in life.
More than just the creation of light, then, “Illumination” is a reference to the process of creating awareness, which the artist likens to a portal for the Divine. This is also the process which he credits for giving birth to his designs. ”
My imagery springs forth from the darkness of the Pleroma and as it ascends through layers of memory, perception and emotion, the abstract energies take recognizable forms.
Artists such as Mark Rothko, he believes, strove for something similar, but in a formless state. Normal, however, attempts to
bring the dark emanations of the Pleroma much further into the light of consciousness and clothe them in representational forms.
Back at Van Ness and O’ Farrell, Normal’s light of consciousness continues to lure in a diverse crowd of passersby. From the midst of his creation, the artist exults.
David Normal’s Crazyology (with interactive sound installation by Theremin Barney)
The ability to reach so many people of different kinds so directly is one of the primary reasons that I chose the space, and the conversations with diverse people who appreciate the work is perhaps the most rewarding part of exhibiting there . . . Mostly people are very appreciative, in awe even. I mean, one of the amusing things is to see people just standing around looking up slack-jawed at the art. It’s a common reaction.
Through February 14
1000 Van Ness, San Francisco, 94109
Open Tuesdays through Sundays, 7 pm until midnight
A reception will be held on February 8, featuring music by Thee Fancy Space People and others.