Reasons to Write Into Art: On Textual Collaboration with Artist Heidi Norton

Focusing on the relationships/constellations between the act of writing, the process of research, and contemporary visual art practices is how I’ve attempted to anchor this series of guest blog posts, but until this winter I could only have spoken to the first two. It’s curious that as a critic and arts writer, you can work full-time to become as fully fluent as possible in the language of contemporary visual art–recognizing it, and occasionally producing its most important turns of phrase, without ever actually speaking it yourself, so to speak. (In other words, so many people who write about art only ever have to learn enough to be able to identify the most important connections, the most obvious expressions, and so forth, without ever learning how individual words and phrases might actually translate to everyday practice.)

Then one day last spring I bought a piece of work by Heidi Norton, my first real significant art purchase, after seeing her show at ebersmoore gallery (the title of the piece I bought, The Radicant, also happened to be precisely the same as that of a Bourriaud book I was arguing with in my head at the time), and I began an email conversation with her about her work, after which she invited me by for a studio visit. The rest of that history should make up a blog-post-long disclaimer about conflict of interest as a writer, because I want to write about a show that I was involved in creating–and what I learned about the process of making artist books and more generally making text that’s part of a visual art show rather than a response to one. So, here is my disclaimer: this entire blog post is a conflict of interest (and in a way, it is also about that very conflict). 

Some very brief background on Heidi’s work: She works in photography, living plants, wax, the earth, and is influenced deeply by the light and space movement. Her photographs are among the most exquisite surfaces I’ve ever seen.

Heidi Norton. "My Dieffenbachia Plant with Tarp (Protection)," 2011. Archival Pigment Print, 30x36 in.

Her wax pieces, which is the genre of piece I bought, are heavy, lumbering, decaying chunks of wax encasing living plant material that eventually dies and falls out (frieze critic Jason Foumberg, who is also my editor at New City, compared them to dead dissections of scientific specimens; I told you this was one long conflict-of-interest piece).

Heidi Norton. Untitled, 2011. Wax and mixed media.

Heidi was an ACRE (Artist’s Cooperative Residency and Exhibitions) resident in Wisconsin this summer, where she built a studio in the woods, digging holes in the earth to embed wax, creating shelves in rock walls in which she photographed found objects. After talking to her via email a few times this fall, I went to her studio to see about a possible collaboration, where I saw the work she had made, through intervening with studio materials in the earth, and the photographs she had taken there of that practice.

"Tryptich Hole," 2011. Archival pigment print. Courtesy Johalla Projects.

 Heidi and I agreed to work together to produce a kind of field guide to the work (not a stretch, as much of the work had to do with the geological history of the area, the role of the natural studio, and themes like erosion and floriography). What became interesting to me as a critic was the process that followed, particularly the haziness between critic and participant.

To that end, I can’t review the show at Johalla, which closes next weekend. (For information and images from the show, see the gallery’s website)I can’t speak with any objectivity to the work in the show, which I used as inspiration for writing. But I can talk about what it’s like to work on an artist’s book as someone with no background in the language of visual research and practice.

Since much of Heidi’s work uses language drawn from nature, I found myself drawn to writing about her show in the form of a natural history, and in brief talks– Heidi would declare herself interested in erosion, and I would announce I wanted to include a description of the Driftless Area in the American Midwest, where the ACRE residency in Steuben is located–we came to a consensus regarding what the chapters of the book should be about. All the sections of the resulting artist book related in some way to the natural world that framed and grounded (so to speak) Heidi’s practice while making the work: glaciation and driftlessness; a guide to the artist in her studio framed as an ethnographic study; reasons for people to cut into the earth objectively listed; identifying weeds as an epistemic undertaking; erosion; archaeology.

We even agreed on a format for the field guide: appropriated record boxes with field samples of the materials that were important for her work placed in compartments built into the boxes, and the text of the field guide inserted as loose pages inside.

Installation view of Reasons to Cut Into the Earth. Photograph of exhibition by Luan Barros.

Then all that was left for me was to write the text itself. The process of writing an artist’s book, unlike that of criticism, academic research, or general cocktail party conversation, involves not straightforward (even sensitively straightforward) analysis but the actual creation (a kind of semiotic and material/visual excess) of metaphors for others to break down and analyze–a necessarily not overdetermined argument combining and utilizing the show’s visual language. And not only that, but Heidi wanted the book to be part of the show (a kind of sculpture, almost, that would eventually become literally fused to another work in the show by being embedded in a river of melted wax). The book also had to be an object of visual interest– as a critic, this pressure was new and immense for me.

To say the least, I had to shift rhetorical strategies in my own practice to write a piece intended to be a work of art itself. Heidi and I worked well enough together–I think ultimately we both ended up with a piece we were proud of– but I’ve never felt so strongly that I was speaking a dialect of English completely misunderstood by other people. Heidi would ask me questions about visual layout that I would be completely unable to answer. I would write something about the platform pieces in the show that she thought were too obvious (for example, I would overstate the case by arguing what certain wooden platforms signified in the exhibit, as opposed to what they weren’t; we ended up beginning the chapter about the platforms with the line “The platform is neither one thing or another,” which is also true of the resulting book, entitled Art in the Earth: A field guide from the soil to the studio). I would frown confusedly at my computer screen when she suggested over email that we make up our own lexicon of what various plants mean.

It’s not that I’m completely uncreative; it’s that critics are taught to think in tight associative circles based on the language suggested by artists in their work, which in turn undermines us when we attempt to dialogue with the expansive thoughts of artists while they are creating, as Heidi was while in dialogue with me. This tension between creative and critical (for example: I wanted to say what the form of the platform in the show meant; Heidi was sure we should just say what it didn’t mean) is the stuff of cliche precisely because it’s part of a very real negotation that happens when you write about art from either direction, and you’re only fully aware of it when on the other side (the side where most of the work is done).

The fact that the artist book ended up taking the form of a field guide–a prescription for seeing that’s not unlike criticism–added another layer of irony. Now, my favorite section from the book is the second of five listed “reasons to cut into the earth:”

“To see what’s growing underneath: she dug holes into the earth all summer, her hair tied up in a bandana. She built a studio in the woods, using the holes she dug as molds into which she poured colored wax, capturing flowers, insects, and weeds in the viscous bright liquid. (When big chunks of glaciers get stuck in earth, they create giant pools of ice that result in holes when they melt. Geologists call these holes “kettles,” and lakes often form in these depressions.) When she was a young girl in West Virginia and Maryland, she dug holes to explore the parts of the world that were just barely invisible but still attainable to her. The work that she did digging those holes was unprofessionalized and undifferentiated. She could have been looking for fossils or diamonds or evidence of human history before her.”

Installation view of Reasons to Cut Into the Earth, with photograph of Heidi Norton by Eileen Muller. Photograph of exhibition by Melissa Fischer.

I love this chunk of text because it’s a melting blend of genres and true to Heidi’s practice, and also because it opens up the possibilities for both the text and hopefully writing about the show. The best writing about art bridges the gaps between the creative and the critical and meets art on its own terms (another cliche because it’s true). As a critic, I rarely get a chance (or challenge myself) to do that; as a collaborator with an artist, it was required.

I’m starting to think an experience with this sort of work should be a rite of passage to arts criticism of any kind. It might also help us realize that the movement of the earth is not limited to soil, rocks, and plants:

“That everything is gradually destroyed does not have to be a realization that leads to despair. Photographs are like bodies; they fade away. This makes it more necessary for us to really look at them. The human body itself erodes. Erosion is naturally and certainly not always bad. We use it in everyday speech to talk about the way that things level out, or mutate in a natural, organic way into something else.” ~ Monica Westin and Heidi Norton

Heidi Norton’s exhibition Reasons to Cut Into the Earth runs until January 29 at Johalla Projects.