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Sherman Gallery Show Presents a Grand Narrative

Aaron Norfolk’s paintings are rich in mythic storylines

The past two years have been something of a blur for Aaron Norfolk. A College of Fine Arts painting fellow, Norfolk says he’s slept very little during his two-year fellowship, especially his first year: “I felt like an insomniac, or better, a sleepwalker.” Being a painting fellow, he acknowledges, is “difficult and demands your attention to all aspects of the program. You are everything from problem solver to mentor.” That said, despite all the worry and the ups and downs, the experience has been “priceless and memorable,” says Norfolk (CFA’09), who is also a School of Visual Arts lecturer in painting.

His sleep deprivation can also be attributed to his preparation for the culmination of his fellowship: the solo exhibition Cosmosomnia by Aaron Norfolk, on view at the Sherman Gallery through May 17. He says all of the paintings in the show are “tangled up in the wandering wishes and dreams I had while working. In fact, I’m still wondering what happened and who made all of this.”

The First Dream (Music), oil on canvas, 2014, by Aaron Norfolk.

The First Dream (Music), oil on canvas, 2014, by Aaron Norfolk.

Norfolk’s paintings depict a kind of mythic storyline enhanced by the massive size of many of them. It’s a deeply intimate show, and he reveals a great deal about himself in the paintings. “I am basically leading you into my world of fantasies and experiences,” he says.

In The First Dream (Music) a horned figure sits on a rock in a sylvan setting playing some kind of flute, attended by two putti, or angels. “It’s an homage to music and how much it’s meant to me,” Norfolk says. The seated figure is “Marsyas, or Pan, and the two putti are the children that flock to his music. They are his band and his future.”

Other paintings, like Pandemonium and Nightmare, are dreamscapes, he says, possibly taking place on another planet. In the former, a man in a boat paddles on a tranquil turquoise sea. The figure seems to be in a fugue state, a falcon perched on one side of him while above, an angel-like figure is guiding him. Behind him, a city on the opposite shore is engulfed in flames. In Nightmare, a blue serpent is coiled tightly around the body of a male figure, his face frozen in terror.

These and many of Norfolk’s other paintings have a feverish quality to them; the images appear to have sprung from some kind of nightmare. Violence seems to lurk just under the surface.

Norfolk says Pandemonium is actually a depiction of what it’s like to move into the unknown. But it’s also “a traveler witnessing time destroy the past.” Nightmare, which began as a picture of a man being poisoned by a doctor, became something more complicated. “As it developed, it became entwined with health care, debt, even drug addiction,” Norfolk says. “All of these thoughts wound around the central figure. In the end, the struggle seemed emblematic and I left it.”

Nightmare, oil on canvas, 2014, by Aaron Norfolk.

Nightmare, oil on canvas, 2014, by Aaron Norfolk.

Nowhere is the sense of menace more pronounced than in Wrath, an oil on canvas, in which a demonic figure is seated on some kind of throne, holding fire in one hand, a skeletal head in the other. Norfolk says the painting is a commentary on the violence that is everywhere in the world today. So he decided to make a god of it. “He is the symbol of the enraged state we can all feel,” he says, adding that the figure “is also thin and nearly invisible at points,” a reflection of how vacuous and empty rage can be.

If there is one thing besides a shared mythic narrative that unites the paintings in Cosmosomnia it is the dazzling display of color imbued in each work. Standing before the paintings, a viewer feels awash in rich, saturated blues, reds, golds, oranges, and purples. Norfolk’s command of color heightens the sense that each painting is telling some sort of grand narrative.

“The organization of color is like beautiful math for me,” the artist says. “Color’s interplay is harmony and melody in full effect. I restrain it not at all. What I see around me is vibrant and potent. I would never want to diminish that.”

In marked contrast to his oil paintings, two of his large monochromatic woodblock prints are included in the show, The Gift and The Letter. Both were in the School of Visual Arts Faculty Exhibition earlier this year. In The Gift, a female nude offers a pear to a male nude. The artist says it is a representation of devotion and love. “It is autobiographical in that it depicted a relationship I was in at the time,” says Norfolk. “Unfortunately, it ended soon after the print was finished.” The image is for “everyone who believes in faith and trust between people.” But the work is also an unmistakable allusion to the biblical story of Adam and Eve. Similarly, in The Letter, a putti holds a letter being read by a woman. While the artist describes the print as a commentary about the commerce of language between lovers and the private and mysterious dialogue of intimate communication,” it also recalls the story of the Annunication, when an angel appeared to the Virgin Mary to tell her she will bear a son, Jesus. The reference, says Norfolk, “helps bring a spiritual, or divine, element to the piece.”

The Gift, woodblock print on paper, 2012, by Aaron Norfolk.

The Gift, woodblock print on paper, 2012, by Aaron Norfolk.

Although a painter by training, Norfolk is attracted to woodblock prints because they suit his use of line to great effect. Printmaking has become a natural extension of his work, although he came to it reluctantly. “I tried to talk my way out of doing the first woodblock print I ever made,” he says, “but I ended up loving it.”

Norfolk began painting as a teenager and earned a BFA from the College of William and Mary in 1995 before coming to BU for a master’s. His work has been featured in solo and group exhibitions all over the world, in such cities as Tel Aviv, New York, and Boston.

He says that regardless of the medium he’s working in, each “comes from me looking at things. Whether people, a still life I’m working on, or so many other places, it all comes from there and gets trapped up in my imagination somehow. I really have no idea how it happens. Then there is the compulsion to make it.”

Aaron Norfolk, Cosmosomnia is on view at the Sherman Gallery, George Sherman Union, 775 Commonwealth Ave., second floor, through May 17. The gallery is open Tuesday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. The show is free and open to the public.

1 Comments
john o'rourke, editor, bu today
John O’Rourke

John O’Rourke can be reached at orourkej@bu.edu.

One Comment on Sherman Gallery Show Presents a Grand Narrative

  • susan schnur on 01.25.2016 at 12:10 pm

    Extremely compelling painting equaled by the critique offered here.
    Thank you so much.

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