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.”


The below link will take you on a virtual tour of my recent show at LewAllen Galleries.

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North America is a vastness. True, the landscape stretching from one end of the continent to the other is almost unimaginably variegated, and almost nowhere is it as empty as Australia, for instance, or the Asian steppe. But the space of the Northwestern Quadrisphere still yawns and rolls and beckons the human imagination with its fields and mountains, deserts and skies. The indigenous peoples of North America developed integrative, holistic belief systems tying them to the land not least because the land itself, beyond its bounty and its peril, inspired such close association. The peoples that have since occupied Canada, Mexico, and the United States have been similarly awed by the places they have found themselves (although one man’s awe can be another man’s exploitation). The poetics of topography meet those of troposphere almost everywhere in North America: even the most prosaic copse inspires a sense of intimacy, and even the most monotonous plain mesmerizes the mind while hiding, then unleashing, the threat of meteorological spectacle.

American space has been the central subject of Adam Normandin’s painting for over a decade now. For most of that time Normandin’s evident subject matter has been trains – engines, boxcars, cabooses, rails, the whole nine million yards of rail-based freight service in and about the United States. But the full iconography of Normandin’s work indicates that freight trains are not so much his subject as his conceptual armature. The relationship of such a human thing as trains – as object, as infrastructure, as architecture, even as a locus of romantic associations (rural and urban) – to the land and space it traverses is at the heart of Normandin’s pictorial quest. Exacting as his renditions are (to the point where the nation’s most fervent trainspotters collect his work and honor him at their conventions), the painter’s engagement with trains, as his method betrays, bespeaks a vision much bigger than a boxcar.

Normandin’s work comes under the broad but distinctive rubric of Hyperrealism: his rendition of imagery is fixed, precise, and unmistakable, described with a verism so sharp as to challenge rather than reify ordinary sight. Indeed, certain aspects of his approach consign his style to the more narrowly defined genre of Photo-realism: the depiction of speeding trains as almost illegible blurs, for example, recapitulates an effect provided not by the human eye but by the camera. (The other elements in these paintings, however, are exactingly painted, at full rest, setting up an almost vertiginous optical conundrum between apparent motion in photographic terms and apparent fixity in optical terms.)

For the most part, Normandin treats his trains and train elements as self-contained, even monumental presences, capturing their great detail and equally their plainness. In this he continues an American tradition of the lucid, an arc of neo-classicism that courses throughout the 19th century and undergoes many metamorphoses in the 20th before re-coding into the Photo-Realism made possible by Pop Art. Normandin professes the influence of Edward Hopper, and clearly reconsiders in his own work the light, composition, and still yet vibrant atmosphere found in the older painter’s outdoor pictures. Those qualities entered Hopper’s work permanently when the New York-based painter made several visits west. Normandin, himself a New York native now living in Los Angeles, echoes Hopper’s “light journey” by bathing his pictures in the high, unmodulated but haze-tinged sunshine he now inhabits.

Normandin also acknowledges the examples set by Richard Estes and John Register – a complementary pair, one employing Photo-realist methods in glittering portrayals of an oddly empty New York City, the other resorting to a more atmospheric Hyperrealism in his paintings of and near the Los Angeles coastline. Both artists are masters at describing space as place and vice versa, a continuing pursuit of painters at least since the Dutch Golden Age. In this regard – and for all he has taken from Estes – Normandin treats his trains and train elements not as things in themselves so much as markers in a context of light and space; he thus aligns himself stylistically with (Southern and Northern) California Photo- and Hyperrealism (Register’s not least), which has always been about light and the mutability of perception, as opposed to the Eastern preoccupation with the thing itself and the identity of subject matter.

In his earlier work Normandin did explore more conventional Hyperrealist subjects such as buildings, storefronts, and street vehicles. These images are still marked by a sensitivity to space as described by light, and by architecture – not the image of structures, but the architecture of the picture itself, how the lines and borders predominating in the painting relate to one another and to the picture plane. Working his way through images of taxis, walls, and neon signs, Normandin perfected the soundness of his compositional strategy – a strategy, he himself observes, that brings him close to Mondrian in its reliance on clarity and rectilinear exactitude. In maintaining this formality Normandin returns us to the neo-classicism of a young United States (and a revolutionary Europe). He also conjures the neo-neo-classicism of the Precisionist movement, an interwar phenomenon in American painting that, in the wake of photography, conflated realism and cubism. Indeed, it would be justified to describe Normandin as something of a “neo-precisionist.”

What, then, to make of the wild, explosive graffiti that festoons so much of the rolling stock Normandin portrays especially in his most recent work? These insolent ballooning forms seem to contradict the very core of his aesthetic. The artist argues that, in effect, they come with the landscape. His faithfulness to his subject matter, he says, requires that he depict them as found, that including them in his paintings roots his trains in their social as well as physical environment. This makes sense as far as it goes (never mind that more than a few of his paintings are composites) but it also speaks to a greater fundament in Normandin’s art: its search not for artistic perfection nor for reportorial veracity but for equilibrium between the two. His is an art that favors neither truth nor beauty, but embraces both. Normandin’s work demonstrates that truth is beauty, that the real in all its plainness is a place of poetic transport. This, perhaps, is the most American quality of Adam Normandin’s oeuvre: as William Carlos Williams put it, “no poetry but in things.” For all the expanse of the North American continent, its allure comes down to the interaction of its air with its artifacts. Normandin’s art persuades us that such is the case.

A Virtual Studio Presentation

On June 30th, 2020, I had the great pleasure of presenting my work, as well as the inspiration behind it for the Center for RailRoad Photography & Art.

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Getting Things Done

Lately, it seems that I have been receiving a lot of inquiries about my process.

Typically, I avoid such discussion, preferring instead that my work speak for itself. The ends justify the means, after all, and I think getting caught up in talk about process can easily become a distraction, if not disenchanting to the point of the work. -When you know a magician’s secret, the fun of the trick disappears. I also find this discussion a bit challenging, since I am not always conscious of how I go about doing things. Instinct guides me through most things in life, and I have never put a lot of thought into my methodology in order to articulate it.

All that said, I do appreciate having someone’s interest, regardless of reason. Also, my process is anything but mysterious, so I will write some things about it and hope that it satisfies all those that may be curious. I don’t want to bore anyone with specific technical data, so if you’d like to know what brand of brushes I use or where I bought my easel, please write me directly.

The starting point for me is usually born in photography. Sometimes, I have a concept in mind before I shoot, and then go out in the field to gather reference. But this doesn’t happen very often. For the most part, I have absolutely no idea in mind when I wander around with my camera. My hope is to randomly stumble upon something inspiring. This “no-plan” plan, may sound lazy, but it is a conscious and deliberate action that has taken me years to master. My goal is to let go of all preconceived ideas and listen only to the creative voice in my head while in the moment. Indeed, most of my paintings come about in this manner. For me, the unexpected thrill is far more enticing than anything I could ever contrive. 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. For me, it’s all about contrasts -Texture, light quality, and weathered colors excite me and when it comes to painting, photography is the first tool that I use to gather information.

Back in the studio, I work in photoshop to compose and work through my photos. I often make changes; move things around, add or remove details to isolate and refine whatever idea is at the root of my inspiration. Cropping is also very instrumental in storytelling and I frequently utilize details from several photographs to make one single composition. On rare occasion, a painting comes from a single photo. But still, I always make adjustments to better suit the idea. Once I decide upon a composition for a painting, all the reference photos serve to help me to make the painting as convincingly realistic as possible. As I mentioned above, I do not employ a lot of thought while shooting, and so I don’t really know if I have anything worthwhile when in the field. It is not until the photoshop stage, where ideas solidify and compositions for paintings come together.

In the next phase, I loosely sketch my composition on the canvas. I don’t get fussy at this point, rather just draw a basic road map to follow and a simple pencil line does the trick. I keep either a printed photograph by my easel or work directly from the computer screen as a guide. My aim with the sketch is to lock in on placement and proportion of the all the elements, and not to resolve any fine details. When I am satisfied with the sketch, I seal it on the canvas with clear gesso. I like to add a drop of paint to make a tint, since I prefer working from a more neutral surface color, rather than white. When the gesso is dry, I sand to remove any texture left behind. Then, working back to front, I apply paint to the canvas. Layer by layer, colors are blocked in to form an underpainting. Gradually, I refine details until the painting starts to take on a life of its own. This is when things start to get interesting, as I no longer feel in control of the painting. Instead, the painting directs me to what it needs, and my hand just follows what I am told. In these moments, the process becomes somewhat of a compulsion and time flies by as I dig deeply into the minutiae. When fatigued, I put the painting aside and out of view. I have found that taking breaks like this are very important. They allow my brain to stop obsessively problem solving, and they also help my eyes to see things freshly when I return. If something looks off, I back up and re-work areas of the painting until satisfied. This cycle repeats until there is nothing more I can possibly do. When my mind wanders off to the next idea, I know it is time to finish the painting. The final step is to apply a few coats of varnish and sign the back. I have found that keeping track of time can be somewhat destructive to my creativity, so I try not to do this. Generally speaking, though, paintings can take up to several months to complete, depending on size and complexity.

When it comes to process, my mind and heart are truly at their freest. For me, the making of each painting is its own unique love affair. Some are easy and short lived, while others are challenging and feel like they take a lifetime …All are worthwhile though, and I learn something new about myself with each one. When I am in the flow, emotions ricochet around my brain, and I get lost in reflective thoughts about life. I get so entrenched sometimes, that I am not necessarily conscious of the painting in front of me. I must frequently step away from my easel throughout the day, to gauge progress and to assess what to do next. More than anything else about my art, process is the thing I cherish most of all. -It is my own personal pleasure in life. The actual paintings are secondary for me. They are the physical manifestations of a cathartic experience. -Souvenirs, if you will, and I have little attachment to them. If anything, the paintings serve to remind me of certain moments in my life. I have always been the sort of person to figure things out on my own, rather than follow instructions. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, but it is my nature. Somehow, and despite difficulties involved, I have managed to grow and learn a thing or two along the way. Having had such limited resources available for so long, I am programmed to make do with whatever I have at hand, to get things done. This has been the basic philosophy throughout my life and among the reasons I often identify with utilitarian subjects. 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.