Old Masters from Raphael to Rubens used airy, inscrutable passages of light, haze and miasma to lend atmosphere to their paintings and create spatial relationships among the elements in their pictures. These ‘moments-in-between’ are the central preoccupation and subject matter of Michael Norton’s modestly scaled, egg tempera-on-panel paintings. Created without as much as a nod to contemporary predilections, they picture nothing outside the various teleologies of painting. Neither abstract nor figurative, but rather vaguely evocative, Norton’s paintings confound critical engagement at first glance. The artist has been pursuing this same narrow line of enquiry into atmospheric effects with blinkered devotion for over a decade now. Each finely finished field of painted mist rendered in lavender, rococo peach or ochre conjures fantasies of a hermetic artist working in stubborn physical and conceptual isolation from his peers. This image is confirmed by an exhibition brochure published in 1997 by i space in Chicago, in which Buzz Spector described the stripped-down studio conditions preferred by this artist–ascetic: an empty room with an easel, a single chair and two metal shelves.
Despite their unassuming devotional character and apparent lack of subject matter, Norton’s paintings are, in fact, rich with implication. Small and lovingly finished, paintings like #4 or #7 (both 2008) have the quality of intimate gifts made for a lover. The painted fields Norton builds up, though not explicit, are sensual and orgiastic nonetheless. Each of the six paintings in the exhibition is a small dreamscape left suggestively undefined to invite a limitless range of fantasy projections. The absence of human bodies or a determinate narrative from these Watteau-like pastel fields activates their erotic potential.
Norton’s paintings do not break new ground, nor are they meant to. They do not advance discourse, they eschew criticality, and they have no obvious relationship to contemporary abstract or mimetic painting. All of this implies a smaller, more modest world for Norton’s work – one coexistent with, but doggedly discrete from, the bustling cycles of production and consumption that drive the agendas of prominent commercial galleries. So while these quiet, sensual paintings are far from radical in any formal or conceptual sense, Norton’s brazen disregard for the standard imperatives of the art world is, at the very least, refreshing.