Middle Passages Redux carries the weight of the modern world

Yanique Norman's work is both distressing and immensely pleasurable

Gargantuan emotional and physical burdens, endless toil, and toxic clouds of unhappiness radiate off of artist Yanique Norman's creepy, sad, unforgettable work. There is something both distressing and immensely pleasurable about the mottled watercolor clouds, the fleshy, polyp-covered landscapes, and the tragically miniature faces and bodies peering out from Norman's drawings. Even pain, when it's done well, attracts.

With its figures in stocks, wearing metal collars and toting impossible burdens like ants carrying giant crumbs, Middle Passages Redux, Norman's solo exhibition at Sandler Hudson Gallery, evokes the slave trade in word and image.

The work, which combines drawing, collage and gouache, has the vaguely psychedelic feel of the ready-to-burst globular animations in "Monty Python's Flying Circus." The pieces also harbor elements of disgust and bodily excess similar to Kara Walker's silhouettes of antebellum terrors. The work inspires myriad other associations: to painter John Currin's outrageously tumescent females, Laylah Ali's violence-laced cartoons, and the Surrealism of the '20s shacked up with fist-pumping black consciousness. Norman's technique is chilling, her washes of color and ethereal drawing style so vaporous at times as to look almost airbrushed. It gives the impression that all is a dream, prone to vanish — poof! — if you try to touch it. Or a nightmare half remembered from the night before.

"The Soggy Moons 1" suggests both slavery and planetary movements. Two terribly hunched men with toothpick legs heft a pair of absurdly engorged nude women with Mack truck junk-in-the-trunk and helium-filled breasts (but the dainty pouting feet of princesses) over a landscape that looks like nothing so much as a woman's reclining torso.

In "Fatherlessness 3," a despondent child gazes into a watery mass. AWOL fathers stare blankly from the depths, as helpless to alter their fates as the little boy. At the bottom of this vast lake, another clot of men, bleached a decomposed salmon color, cluster like snails in undulating grass. "Fatherlessness 1" shows a puny, pitiful man bound at the wrists, neck and ankles by jellyfish tendrils dangling from an enormous floating blue orb. He seems to backpack nothing less than the weight of the entire world. Such works suggest tragic people drifting through the world wanting and alone. Equally grim, but formally lovely, "The Soggy Moons 3" presents a cellular or constellation-like cluster of tiny human beings peering out from an ashen cloud that consumes the picture plane like Dickensian factory exhaust.

Norman's work is heady, sophisticated stuff with a haunting visual quality, considering the artist's provenance as a self-taught artist. Though grounded in the historical burden of slavery, Norman's work taps into contemporary social issues, too, of absent fathers and soft, corpulent, oblivious people, heedless to the toil and pain that came before them. Norman suggests that some of us may be no better off, lost in a contemporary middle passage of existential angst and suffering.

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