Art of Communication: Q & A with Norm Magnusson

My friend Cecilia invited me to an exhibit of artist Norman Magnusson’s work. I don’t know a lot about art despite being engaged to a wonderful artist, Sine Hjort.  But Cecilia would not steer me wrong, and she raves about Norm and his work.  Plus, the theme for the exhibit is Communication – so I had to check it out.

The show opened two weeks ago, at Mount Saint Mary College, a beautiful campus overlooking the Hudson River in Newburgh, NY. I am glad we went, as I really enjoyed it and was extremely impressed. His art features playful riffs on how we communicate, or more often fail to, in a range of media.  

Each work drew me in, and shed light on the foibles we call modern communication. They were compelling, easy to relate to, and made this PR guy grin. 

For example, here’s a look at his piece: “I am Sorry…” Norm explains: “Individual words and phrases can be overused to the point of completely losing their sharp edge as carriers of thought and sentiment. Here, below is a drawing entitled ‘I’m sorry’, in which I’ve written ‘I’m sorry’ 1,000 times on a piece of nice thick watercolor paper.”

As he says, “Communication is a bitch.”  Tell me about it!

Norm is a former ad agency copywriter and creative guy, so perhaps it is not surprising that he chose communication as a theme.  I wanted to learn more about his work and asked if he’d agree to an email interview.

Norm said yes – so see the Q & A below.

Please tell me about your background; I understand you come from the advertising field?

I worked on staff as a creative director/copywriter at ad agencies in New York and london. one spring I had my first solo show (of allegorical animal paintings) lined up and I was sick of telling people “what I really wanna be is a painter” and I quit. I’ve been working primarily as an artist ever since. This exhibition, which has a lot of text-based work, feels, to some degree, like coming full circle.

Tell us about your work as an artist – when did you get into it, and why?

A deeply political piece in this era of “fake news”, one side reads “FACTS”, the other reads “LIES”. The effect of seeing both through this glass is obfuscation.

I started painting shortly after I moved to NYC in 1982. My mom had sent me a set of paints and some canvases just for kicks and they just sat there and then one night my roommate said: “Let’s paint a picture” and we did. He was amazing and I was mediocre but I got the bug and he didn’t.

I’ve been making art ever since. I still have the bug.

One of the things I’ve realized I really like about it is exploration and discovery and the CHANCE that things will work out as I’d dreamed they would. It’s kind of a gambler’s mentality: trying something new and hoping it turns out. In this show, there are a lot of pieces where the finished product made me really happy because it worked out. It’s like winning a little lottery. I’d never etched glass before but “Fake News” worked out exactly as I had hoped. I’d never written anything 1,000 times before but “I’m sorry, a thousand times I’m sorry” worked out even better than I’d dreamed. There are a few other pieces in this show that were brand new territory for me as well. I’ll tell you if you want.

Your work seems to have the same playful quality found in Dadaism – did the movement inform your art?

I remember the first time I saw Meret Oppenheim’s piece “Object”. The fur-lined cup, spoon and saucer at NY’s MoMA. It just killllllled me, it was sooooo beautiful. Not just on an aesthetic level, but on an intellectual level too. Same with “Cadeau”, the iron with sharp tacks welded to its smooth surface or the metronome with the eyeball, both by Man Ray or the urinal “Fountain” by Duchamp and many others, and these things really got under my skin in a big way. Some were considered “surrealism” and some “dada” I guess, but for me (I didn’t study art history and knew very little about any of it when I moved to NYC) they were all “absurd objects” and I loved them to bits. I even created and curated an exhibition a few years back on the subject. It was such fun. No one has ever asked me this question before. I guess it was the beginning of an understanding of conceptual art for me, a description that, increasingly, people attach to my creative output. I’m becoming less uncomfortable with it.

What inspired this exhibition?

I worked in advertising as a copywriter. A part of that craft is to say things JUST SO. So that they can be read only one way. The opposite of poetry, if you will. You would never want to write a line of copy that could be misinterpreted in an unflattering way or in any way at all!! I feel that I’m GOOD at that, both professionally and personally. And yet……miscommunications happen. ALL THE TIME!!!! I’m always wondering why? And how? And there are soooo many reasons….. It’s really fascinating to me. And I started to think about it and make art about it and started to think that it could make a really fun exhibition. I think maybe one of the first pieces I made happened when I was dictating through the voice recognition software, Siri, and it was just getting things wrong. Honestly, I think I could make art on this theme forever. There’s no end to how interesting it is to me. Communication is tough and it’s fun to figure out why.  

What’s next for your work?

I’m working on a series about internet pornography. It’s been percolating for years and finally, it’s ready to be created. I’m fascinated with how there is, as they say, something for everyone out there. It’s ubiquitous, 12% of existing websites are porn, 35% of all internet downloads are porn-related. Every second, 29,000 internet users are viewing porn and 1 in 3 of them are women. It’s an amazing force in our contemporary lives and I’ve planned a bunch of obsessive pieces on this topic and made one small example of one of them. I’m thrilled to get going on it.

Thanks Norm!

If you are in the NY northern suburbs I strongly recommended visiting the exhibit, which will be on display through November 13. You can see all the work in this series (some in the show, some not) here.

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