Finding a Voice by Maria Porges

On first examination, Adam Normandin’s paintings have the specificity associated with a photograph: showing us the kind of space that’s seen through a lens, rendered skillfully in meticulous detail. Strongly horizontal compositions, many three by six feet or more, seem to be seamless, offering views of deserts edged with distant mountains that serve as backdrops for isolated freight cars covered with vivid graffiti. Often portrayed in his paintings with their doors open, the car’s long rectangles become frames within a frame, like portals into another world: drawing attention to a view of a distant, shimmering landscape. Then there are anonymous city scenes, in which other examples of rolling stock—a boxcar or engine, even a caboose—are framed by the rectangular forms of corrugated steel and cinderblock warehouses. Brightly colored tags layered on both buildings and trains suggest a different kind of horizon line, in places so specific they seem as though they could be mapped.

Yet all of these detailed, highly realistic scenes are, in a very tangible sense, imaginary. Each represents a combination of details from many photographs, taken by the artist and then later assembled on his computer screen, moved around or cropped or clarified. Neither a documentarian nor a preservationist, his goal is to embody the feeling that a place evokes for him when he encounters it—whether that is while walking the streets of industrial East Los Angeles, his home for many years, or during his sojourns to the desert of the American West. Wandering without plan or preconceived notion of what impressions he will find or keep, he allows himself “to listen only to the creative voice in my head . . . my heart speeds up whenever I see the way shadows can drape across a surface, or the majesty of a spray painted message, layered among the rust and rail coding.”

Once he has established a composition that feels right, Normandin begins the lengthy process of developing the image over weeks and months as he works his way from sketch to finished painting. He deliberately allows each picture to take on a life of its own, dictating its own course in a process that he values even more than he does the completed canvases. As he puts it, “No matter how challenging things can get, the journey is what matters above all. It is where we learn, grow and discover the most valuable things that life has to offer.”

Interested in art making since his blue-collar childhood on Long Island, Normandin set out to teach himself how to paint in his twenties. From the beginning, he has been attracted to an exacting depiction of what he describes as the utilitarian: the buildings and storefronts of the East LA neighborhood where he lives and works and, especially, to the trains that still populate the district. Though they are far from the only thing he paints, freight cars have dominated Normandin’s subject matter for over two decades.

Featured in literally hundreds of popular songs and easily as many stories, trains have been a constant presence in both the history and mythology of the American West. For Normandin, they have offered a “canvas within a canvas”—implying movement and time even as they stand still—a history, present in the layers of graffiti and the scars of use. From the beginning, he has been drawn to that evidence of age, and to the challenge of capturing the patina conferred through
use on both places and things.

Normandin’s neighborhood is rich with that history. A commercial hub full of warehouses and now an arts district as well, this part of the city offers the painter new vistas of traveling freight daily. Train cars park on narrow side streets, pass through rail yards, cross bridges. Always alert to possibilities, he sometimes has to shoot pictures on his phone, as the cars might have moved on to their next stop by the time he returns home for his camera. Works like Lifeboat or Ransom have that sense of temporary respite—rolling doors open to empty, dark interiors, waiting for the next payload and destination.

Recently, he has been experimenting with other subjects. Abandoned cars have appeared in his desert landscapes in the past, their stripped metal skeletons covered with fading painted “tags,” but a long-simmering fascination with the unique challenge of painting fire has led him to the creation of a series of works featuring vehicles subsumed in flames. In Surrender, smoke billows outward from a pickup truck, its front end white hot and glowing against the soft gray of the desert at twilight. The flames are also reminders of the wildfires—not only California but also across Canada, and now Hawaii as well, that are the consequences of a combination of global warming and terrible land management.

The shapes and dimensions of water towers offer a different set of issues. The curved surfaces of Rumor’s elevated storage tanks are wrapped with letters and images, and more cover the warehouses below. In Descent, a passing biplane invokes the idea of movement and travel, even as the massive tower (the tiny graffiti on its side highlights its scale) anchors us to the ground far below. Gather suggests a different kind of flight. It pictures an ancient billboard, silhouetted against pale blue sky, its rectangle tilted rakishly as if it is poised to take off. This sensation is only accentuated by the edges of successive layers of sun-bleached paper peeling away like the surrounding sky’s wispy clouds, or—even more improbably—the white caps of waves. Only the tagger’s handiwork remains legible. Graffiti has been a near constant element in Normandin’s compositions—a fact that makes sense in the context of train culture. The practice of making marks on car’s sides originated in the late 1800s, when a transient culture of train hoppers would draw their distinctive signatures with chalk to communicate with one another. Today’s ubiquitous use of spraypaint originated during the ‘60s and ‘70s, when the subway trains of New York City began to be exploited as a moving canvas for the graffiti artist’s work—if one that was frequently cleaned. Work on freight trains, however, can remain for many years, traveling back and forth across the country.

More widely seen than almost any gallery show, and certainly by a more geographically diverse audience, such marks fascinate Normandin, who often interpolates an image seen on one train onto another completely different car. He has been contacted by various ‘freight writers’ who have seen images of his paintings posted online and recognized their work. To him, the layers of graffiti he inserts into his paintings are like a record of hands touching a car or tattoos on old sailors. Each port of call has added another mark.

Normandin has mentioned the supreme American realist Edward Hopper as an influence. Like Hopper, who sometimes “adjusted” his compositions, Normandin seems less interested in an absolute truth than he is in creating powerful and evocative images. More than simply landscapes centered on empty train cars or industrial urban scenes, these are pictures of a West that may have always been a fantasy: an empty world, onto which we can inscribe ourselves. As Hopper himself once observed, “The painter paints to reveal himself through what he sees in his subject.”