In public, momentary eye contact and passing glances is acceptable; anything longer becomes an uncomfortable stare. And yet to be complete a face requires that it be read. When looking at portrait painting, there is freedom to scrutinize a face.
John Harlan Norris has elected to obscure the facial features in his portraits on view in “Public Face,” at the Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock through May 3. In a fashion similar to Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Norris, who teaches art at Arkansas State University, makes composite portraits by “piling on” things that define the sitter. Headline newspapers wrap around Announcer’s head and maps define the head of the Foreign Observer wearing red, white, and blue 3-D glasses. Most titles reference professional occupations, but two paintings, Weekender and Naturalist, are about leisure time. Commenter features a multitude of cubes outfitted with red lips and protruding tongues (the anonymous blogger on social media).
Like traditional portraiture, these paintings tell us something about the sitters’ roles in society. The individual identities in these wrapped heads are in flux with a disturbing reference to B&D/S&M fetish gear. Norris is forcing his hand with this commentary on the roles we “occupy” in our public and private lives. The viewer is left to read these elusive portraits and fill in the gaps.
Brad Cushman is an artist and gallery director at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.