Cynthia Norton: Freedom Rings Placed Within

March 3 - May 27, 2012
Public Opening Reception: Friday, March 2, 5:30-7:30 p.m.

Historic Landmark Building

Continuing the Morris Gallery program, PAFA presents an exhibition by Cynthia Norton, an artist who lives and works in Louisville, Kentucky. Influenced by the folk aesthetics and history of her surroundings, Norton’s work employs music, video, mixed media, and performance as her country-music alter ego Ninnie, in a manner that combines feminist thought with local and vernacular imagery inspired by the cultural traditions of the rural South and specifically of her native Kentucky. While often combining these different mediums, Norton uses the portrayal of the comedic country rube as a strategy to explore the peculiar relationships between folk traditions, readymade sculpture, storytelling, and technology. Her works often have a “homespun” quality—from self-made musical instruments, made from suitcases and tennis rackets, to gritty lyrics sung by an amateur voice—which points to her “affirmative belief in the power of womanly arts.” These makeshift elements combined with her quirky persona—complete with old-timey Southern costumes fit for a country music star—all attest to Norton’s creativity and inventiveness.  

Norton’s project in PAFA’s Furness-Hewitt building uses paintings in the collection as sounding boards for a group of new video works and sculptures that reflect on the historic portrayal of women in art. Playing with the idea of mixing high and low art, the exhibition acknowledges the long history of PAFA and its fine art collection while juxtaposing it with references to the cultural and musical history of her Kentucky hometown. Much like her performances of altered famous country and blues songs, she is not trying to satirize these histories, but instead critically—and humorously—engage with these concepts.

An example of her playful engagement with the collection is a semi-realistic painting she has made that fuses together William Merritt Chase’s Portrait of Mrs. C. (Lady with a White Shawl) (1893) and Winslow Homer’s Fox Hunt (1893). Chase himself described his figure as “the perfect type of American womanhood.” Norton joins this discussion by including a self-portrait that greatly contrasts Mrs. C’s restrained appearance with her short-sleeved, bright red dress, long black gloves, and stern body language. The forceful crows have been replaced, and a strong, more assertive female figure has taken the forefront. Although this work at first seems like a quick read, it’s more than just a visual comparison. Instead it highlights the mythologized sense of place that the South occupies in the popular imagination (as well as the role of women) and, as she’s more obviously demonstrated with performances where singers hold hand-made banjos up to their faces which conceal their identities, it infers that this (and Chase’s) is a culture that cannot be completely known. 

Norton received a BFA from The University of Kentucky and an MFA in Time Arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Over the past decade, Norton has exhibited and performed extensively in the USA, Europe, and Asia. In 2008, her work was featured in the exhibition The Old, Weird America: Folk Themes in Contemporary Art, organized by the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston.

Curator: Julien Robson, Curator of Contemporary Art

Leading support for this exhibition is provided by the William Penn Foundation

Additional support provided by Virginia Lyons Speed and Pam and Brook Smith.

PAFA's special exhibitions in 2011-12 are supported by generous contributions from Max N. Berry, Esq, Donald R. Caldwell, Jonathan L. Cohen, and Lori Levine Ordover and Janusz Ordover.

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts’ public programs are funded in part by a grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts (a state agency funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency).

General operating support provided, in part, by