30 Years of Social Conscience - The Art of Norm Magnusson

 "Very few artists have so consistently looked at the society around them (and the government around that society) with as insightful and creative an eye as Norm Magnusson. After four decades of looking forward to each new series, it's become clear that his painting, sculpture and conceptual work will continue to resonate and get sharper, smarter, and more inspirational."

- Harley Spiller, Ken Dewey Director, Franklin Furnace

30 Years of Social Conscience - The Art of Norm Magnusson
(exhibition proposal)

(click on any image to see it bigger)

Unarmed Black Men 2020
Cast aluminum and acrylic paint, 96" x 36" x 4"
(Collection of the Museum of the City of New York)

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    In the wake of Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, a call for institutional change is echoing through the halls of power, creating more diverse boards and administrations of cultural institutions across the U.S. Voices of the historically disenfranchised––women and people of color––are finally being amplified and heard. Deservingly so. 

    So, if the fine art world is already littered with white male artists and is in the process of course-correcting this deeply ingrained imbalance, why add another one? Why Norm Magnusson? 

    Over the past 30 years, in over 100 shows and over 100 galleries and museums across three continents, Magnusson has made a concerted effort to create art that addresses social injustice and agitates for equality. His pro-active anti-racist art is an example to which all artists of privilege should aspire.

In Magnusson's own words: "It's incumbent upon all Americans to speak up for fairness and equitable treatment of our fellow citizens. Silence is not an option. I hope that my voice will help shed light on some of the historic atrocities that have been perpetrated upon so many."

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"Mr. Magnusson is an artist-activist. His cast aluminum markers focus our attention on pressing contemporary social and political issues, often restating the concerns or comments of ordinary Americans in carefully composed messages that are designed to make you think. He’s like a Michael Moore of the highway."

 - Benjamin Genocchio, The New York Times

"Magnusson has been using the historical marker platform to support his long-time agenda of relaying socially relevant messages through art.

- Yaelle Amir, Sculpture Magazine

"Magnusson has worked for years as an artist engaged in political art, paintings and videos and installations with a social message. But it's the signs that have spread his name across the internet and into museums around the world."

- Melissa Bell, The Washington Post


On This Site Stood

This series is one of the more politically pointed bodies of work that Magnusson has created. It's an on-going series that subverts the format of the roadside historical marker to add the weight of historical importance to some of today's most pressing social issues.

Pandemic Heroes 2020
Cast aluminum and acrylic paint, 96" x 36" x 4"
(Collection of the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, New Paltz, NY)

Illegal Immigrants 2006
Cast aluminum and acrylic paint, 96" x 36" x 4"

Jane King 2007
Cast aluminum and acrylic paint, 96" x 36" x 4"

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Future Conditional

A commissioned project for the magazine South Writ Large in which Magnusson imagined and commemorated the futures of people whose lives were cut short by lynching.

From his accompanying essay:
"Lynching. Lynching. It means an extrajudicial murder, usually carried out by a mob, usually to bring what that mob thinks of as “justice.” Usually, but not exclusively, the method of lynching is hanging. Usually, historically, there were other means used as well: beating, shooting, evisceration. Usually, traditionally, it was perpetrated by mobs of white Americans, white Southern Americans against Black Americans: including women and children, but men mostly; it didn’t seem to matter. In California, mobs lynched Chinese-Americans, white Americans were lynched, Mexicans, Jews, Italians, Native Americans too. The list goes on. As Bobby Kennedy said, “A mob asks no questions.” "

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After the 11th

Artist's statement from the exhibition:

  "In “After the 11th,” I’ve identified the psychological, emotional and intellectual states I’ve gone through since September 11, 2001 and have created a piece of art corresponding to each one.  

     The first piece I completed was in late September: “Resentment,” a noose made out of approximately 180 U.S. dollar bills.  Next came the word painting “Shell shock,” which reads “Airplanes going over has become the new sound of screeching tires,” followed by an enormous ransom note from terrorists to us entitled “Violation.” 

     Having completed these three pieces, the overall concept for this body of work started to become apparent to me.   I began thinking about the psychologist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and her 5 now-famous states of grief for those faced with the death of a loved one: “denial,” “anger,” “bargaining,” “depression,” and “acceptance” and I realized that I was following a similar path.  So using Kubler-Ross as a conceptual springboard, I began to identify all the feelings I was having in the aftermath of this defining moment in American history and in my life as an artist living in downtown Manhattan.  The list grew and grew, encompassing all the feelings I had as a New Yorker, as a father, as a political skeptic, as a liberal, and as someone who truly appreciates the rewards and responsibilities of being an American.  

     The one thing that each of these pieces have in common is sincerity:  “Admiration of bravery” is a sincere admiration for the bravery of those who gave their lives attempting to save others in the World Trade Centers.   “Dread,” “Patriotism,” and “Confusion” are just as sincere as “The feeling that capitalism is perversely indomitable” and “The feeling that the war effort is being marketed to us.”  Having a critical view of my government has never stopped my from loving my country, a sentiment that can be found in “A feeling of suppression,” a t-shirt stamped with the motto “dissent keeps America strong.”

     As I near completion of this very personal body of work and prepare to exhibit it, a question pops into my head “who is this show for?  who is the audience?”  And I’ve realized that the ideal audience to appreciate it to its fullest are my fellow New Yorkers.  I hope that they will come and appreciate this show and maybe even do as I have and understand a little better some of the feelings we’ve all experienced after the 11th."

Dollar bills, pine box, 37 x 18” (edition of 3)     

This (above) was the first piece Magnusson created after the attacks. He said he was thinking about America’s generous foreign aid policies: what the U.S. sends out into the world and how it comes back to us.

Explaining the technique Magnusson wrote: "The noose used about 180 dollar bills. Everybody asks. I folded them in half lengthwise, folded each edge in to the middle and slipped the folded dollar bills together and into each other, overlapping and underlapping by about an inch and a half, and used this as one strand in what became a braid of dollar bills. Once the braid was done (about 60 feet of braid), I folded it over on itself and twisted it round and round until it resembled a rope. Once the rope was complete, I tied it into a noose, complete with the traditional 13 loops.   

When I was a kid, my sister used to know how to make a weaving out of chewing gum wrappers. This noose has reminded a lot of people of that craft."

Violation, 2001          
Poster pieces on canvas, 110 x 84”          

This was the second piece he completed. Magnusson: "It was not too long after the attacks that I started feeling as if I were being held captive. Held captive by fear, held captive by CNN, held captive by terrorists. This ransom note itself was written and rewritten to get it just right. The repetitive use of “give us” was meant to be a simple demand. It wasn’t until after I had finished the piece that my friend Josh pointed out the similarities to Emma Lazarus’ famous inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor....   I feel the note's main point is in the logical paradox at its conclusion: “Give it to us now or you’ll never see it again.”  Trust and optimism and security are ours and the power rests solely with us to hold onto them. Without our acquiescence, terrorists are powerless to effect change.

I went around NYC cutting letters out of posters wheat-pasted to walls. I sorted them into piles, one for each letter of the alphabet and went out to collect more if I was out of any lettter."

Loss of innocence2002          
Paper weaving, 36" x 54”     

A few days after the attacks, Magnusson read an article in the New York Times written by an American who had lived in Israel for many years. The main point of the article was “now you know.” Now America knew what the rest of the world dealt with. Now we knew what it was like to feel vulnerable.  Now we knew. "Loss of Innocence" is a paper weaving of a map of the U.S. and a map of the world. Magnusson: "September 11 made us a part of the world. Our psychological separatism fueled by geographic isolation was over.  Our innocence was lost."

The feeling that capitalism is perversely indomitable, 2001          
Topps picture cards on wood, 12 x 17 1/2 x 19

Shortly after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the Topps Company issued "Operation enduring freedom" trading cards.   Magnusson made them into what he called "a little temple of capitalism" and noted that it was one of the crowd favorites in the exhibition.

Cans, labels, 45" x 45"

Magnusson: "There was a pervasive feeling at the time that there would be more attacks. As a proud New Yorker, I was certain that we were the only target that mattered. This inverted stack of cans should be toppling over but isn't. I wanted to create a feeling of uncomfortable expectations."

The willingness to trade civil liberties for protection2001
Mixed media, 12" x 12" x 18 1/2”

Magnusson: "I was at a dinner party of artists after the Patriot Act was passed by congress and they were up at arms.   My feeling was whatever price our safety costs, it’s worth it and there will be enough checks and balances in place to prevent any agency of the government from abusing the powers contained in that act. I was in a small, reviled minority around that dinner table of liberal alarmists.

Gradually, as the details of the act came to light, I saw that my Chicken Little friends were right. The act impinges on numerous civil liberties and gives the government and its agencies powers that would have our founding fathers turning in their graves."

This piece was made from a plaster cast of an Israeli gas mask for children covered with the American Constitution and Bill of Rights.  

Shell shock2001          
Acrylic on canvas, 72" x 48”     

Magnusson: "Every New Yorker who saw this piece remembers it. I think I mentioned this thought to my friend Greg one day and he loved it.  I refined the writing a little bit and made it into a large painting. The coloration was a no-brainer. I wanted both the letters and the background to be sky blue. I wanted it to be something that could be read, but not without trouble. The thing about screeching tires is that no matter how many times you hear them, you’re always waiting for the crash at the end of the screech.  That’s how it had become with airplanes going over New York City. Now people were nervous.  After planes started flying over Manhattan again, you could see the ordinarily blas√© citizens of NY stopping on the sidewalk and looking up if the engine was too loud. Another attack?"

Magnitude of loss2002          
2,801 empty hangers, 2 coat racks each 60’ long     

Visitors to the "After the 11th" exhibition were invited to write the name of one of the deceased on a “remembrance tag,” a claim check. They would then place the large part of the tag over the hanger and take the claim tab with them as their own remembrance. The piece was an effort to dimensionalize the number of people killed that day.

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"In general the show is strongest where it lives up most fully to its title. Norm Magnusson reveals what he believes is the true message embedded in Mr. Bush's 2004 State of the Union address."

- Roberta Smith, The New York Times

Finding the Truth

From the "Finding the truth" series, begun with George Bush, where Magnusson took presidential speeches, in their unedited entirety and simply highlighted certain words to find what he thought was the truth of the matter.

President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of congress, 2017

archival computer print, 40" x 30"

(verbatim from prepared transcript - below: highlighted words only)

Tonight, as we mark the celebration of our vandalism of truth, liberty and justice --I am here to deliver a message to the middle classIt’s been a little over a month since my inauguration, and I want to take this moment to announce the government corruption and deregulation that threatens the future of their financial dreams.  For the American family that loses their jobs, their income, or a loved one, because my Administration — a network of lawless Christians — will be making it easier for companies to abandon protective policy and depress wageswe do not truly care.  Mandating no choice is the plan for women’s health, and to advance the common good, woman should not be free to choose and must not have a voiceFinally, to keep America Safe we mustas the Bible teaches us, all share faith in and all salute the same God. From now on, America will be guided by our visionGod bless you, and God Bless these United States.

"State of the Union"

The economy

Clear skies

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"Magnusson  is known for creating pieces that offer symbolic commentary using diverse mediums . . . ."

- Kelly Granger, Chronogram

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Youth Culture in America

Artist's statement from the exhibition "Youth Culture in America":

"There is certainly no more dynamic culture in the world today than youth culture in America.   “Youth Culture in America” is an exhibition that brings together and presents some of the most egregious external influences our kids encounter: from television, cartoons, popular music, advertising, coloring books, peers, abusive teachers and parents, and so on. Some of them are stamped with my opinions (on issues that range from gender stereotypes to the marketing of drugs and sex to teenagers, to violence), and some of them are presented as-is, a conglomeration of both original creations and ready-mades, art and archeology."

Gumball machines2000
Gumball machines, gumballs, condoms, joints, .44 bullets, plastic vending machine capsules, 
60 x 37 x 21”

Yosemite Sam2000
Acrylic on wood, lead, copper, 48 x 25 x 20”     

Our national handgun cartoon character. 4 feet tall.

Heroes, 2006
Cotton/acrylic jerseys, different sizes

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were the perpetrators of the Columbine High School massacre. 
To a certain swath of American youth, their fame is enviable.

Pin the bullet wound on the schoolboy game, 2001
Acrylic on cardboard, packaging, 36 x 17 1/2”

Eating an ice cream and carrying a book of American History. 

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Coloring Book paintings

From the "Coloring book" series and the "Vacation" exhibition at Spike Gallery in 2004

Artist's statement on this body of work:

"For me, one of the hardest parts of making art is striking the proper balance between clarity and poetry. Creating symbolism is relatively simple; creating symbolism that’s neither too obvious nor too obscure is relatively difficult.  

To this end, I have, for years, painted for that mythical person I’ve called “the thoughtful viewer,” trying to create metaphors that are neither bang-you-over-the-head obvious nor so difficult that they require my explanation to be understood.      

With this body of work, I’ve found a happy middle ground, creating a series of paintings that can be deciphered without my input. The formula that allows this to happen is to simply juxtapose two elements out of which comes a third: a point of view. Here’s how I arrived at this formula.
It began with a desire to somehow incorporate some of the coloring books of my youth into a piece of art.   I had a small collection of coloring books from the early 60’s and as I looked through them I was struck by how gender stereotypes were presented.   The “Annette Funicello Coloring Book,” which had belonged to my sister, was all about being pretty, getting married and making a home.   The “Fighting Men in Action” coloring book, which was mine, was all about masculine aggression and the cool machinery of war.

At first, I thought that simply copying selected images from these books onto a large canvas would be enough to convey meaning.   But then, from either a desire to make them more “mine,” more clever, or more clear, I decided that they would work better if they were not just copied onto plain white canvas, but onto pages from meaningful books.   So I found “Women and Self-esteem,” and “Anger Kills,” pulled them apart, glued their pages to the canvas, sanded them smooth and copied the coloring book images onto them.   These two pieces became “Shopping for Clothes” and “Pitching a Hand Grenade”, both on the theme that gender stereotypes are reinforced from a very young age and that this is not necessarily a healthy thing.

After these first two pieces were created, I was very enthusiastic about the format: two elements in each painting; one of them defining the topic, and its juxtaposition against the other creating a point of view on that topic.   It’s simple, readable, and aesthetically pleasing,   and so I pursued it, creating works on other themes such as feminism (“Save Me”), environmentalism (“Silent Spring”), the desire for sexual adventure (“Delta of Venus,”), advertising (“Makes me like milk more,”) and faith ("The age of fable").   I also started considering ways to make the pieces more aesthetically interesting within the format, and you’ll see that the surfaces are varied."

Red Stick 2003  
Mixed media on canvas 68 x 46"

(Financial Times stock pages/Walt Disney's Pluto Pup coloring book) 
On the commodification of cultural/racial stereotypes.

Save me, 2001 
Acrylic on canvas 68 x 46” 

(The Village Voice’s Escort Ads/”Superman” Coloring Book)
My first feminist painting.

Circulars, 2003  
Mixed media on canvas 68 x 46"

(Grocery store circulars/Elizabeth Taylor Coloring Book) 
On the packaging of celebrity.

Silent Spring, 2001  
Acrylic on canvas 68 x 46"

(Silent Spring/"National Parks A Book to Color") 
On our strange relationship with nature.

"Vacation", 2003
Mixed media on canvas 68 x 46"
(detail below)

("TV Guide" listings/"Things that go to color") Our sorry surrogate for real experience: television.

Spring, 2003
Mixed media on canvas 80 x 66"

(The New York Times front pages/"Around the year a book to color")
As the war raged, we on the home front went on about our business.

(detail below)

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Magnusson, from the blog accompanying this 2021 exhibition: "Several years ago, it dawned on me that, from a young age, boys are taught (by popular culture and friends, for example) to look at ‘dirty pictures’ to fuel their onanistic pleasures. It was an interesting realization and it made me think that pornography might be a good topic for a monologue. This idea sorta rattled around a bit and then one day I had the thought to find two dirty pictures online (not hard to do), print them out, and weave them together - something I’d been doing with other subject matter since 1985 or so when I first saw the technique used by the sculptor/musician Laurie Anderson.

Well, I loved the resulting sculpture and immediately gave up any further idea of the monologue; I wanted to do more porn weavings and I wanted to do them big. Somehow they captured all kinds of things that I thought and understood and suspected about people’s lives with pornography. But even more, they seemed to capture some things that I felt about it all, things that I couldn't quite explain rationally. The weavings just seemed right. They’re obsessive and repetitive and fetishistic and, in a strange way: neutralizing."

(He wrote and performed the monologue, too, it can be seen here.)

SSBBW, 2020
66" x 44", archival computer prints on acid-free paper, cut into strips and woven together and
mounted on acid-free foamcore

Glasses, 2020
46" x 46" framed. Archival computer prints of hardcore internet porn, printed on acid free paper,
cut into strips and woven together.  Mounted on acid free foam core and framed.

Miss March/Miss July, 2020
31" x 16" framed, Playboy magazine centerfolds,
cut into strips and woven together, mounted on acid free foamcore.

Beauty Shots, 2021
15" x 12" framed, pages from Playboy magazine, cut into strips and woven together,
mounted on acid free foamcore

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Flower Markers

Place.  A sense of place.  A place's allure made manifest just through the utterance of its name. 
Shangri-la. Hawaii.  Home.  Places of positive associations for most people. 

There are other places, too, the names of which will always evoke horror or sorrow or sadness.  Columbine.  Auschwitz.  Jonestown.  Ferguson.

Magnusson created a small but poignant project about the power of those names.

Chemical Disasters, 2007

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Parts of this series were on view in the "kuh-myoo-ni-kay-shun" exhibition, the first ever solo show at the cma gallery at Mount Saint Mary College, in 2019. Commentary by the artist.

See the whole series here: https://dyscommunicationexhibition.blogspot.com

Communication Modulator, 2018
Archival computer print of digital image
(click on any image to make it bigger)

"This piece is sort of the topic sentence for this body of work, highlighting many sources of difficulty in our communication - factors such as: desired outcome of interaction; actual/perceived strengths of the speaker; likability of the speaker; personal distractions; etc.

History with the speaker, the speaker's tone of voice, etc., there are so many things that can influence how words are heard. Personally, though I consider myself to be a very sincere person, I see my innocent (and even sweet) words being taken as sarcastic or snarky much more often than I ever mean them to be that way."

Mistakes Were Made2017
Hand-embossed archival paper, 21" x 17"

"When I was a kid, in 1970 or so, Richard "I am not a crook" Nixon said, with regards to the Watergate fiasco, and by way of a non-admission admission of culpability, "Mistakes were made." Even as a youngster, this phrase seemed peculiar. Not the least of it being that if I had ever tried to use this "king of non-apologies" with my mom or dad, I woulda been grounded for life! Here, I take the “desire to say something that SEEMS to be saying the right thing but in fact actually isn't” one step further, presenting the mere shadow of the words, pressed into paper."

The Gettysburg Address Segregated by Letter, 2017
Archival computer print of black Sharpie on paper

Horse, 24" x 20"
Archival computer print on acid-free board

"Frequently, people speak to us, but instead of listening with our heads, we should actually be listening with our hearts. On these occasions, we might miss entirely what they're trying to communicate because of our successful engagement with their words and our failed engagement with their deeper meaning. Read between the lines, as they say. This piece, "horse", is about that "heart/head" problem, substituting "feeling" words for numbers in an online paint by numbers outline."

Fake News, 2018
Etched glass, 48" x 20" $4,000

"One side of this glass has the word "lies" on it, the other shows the word "facts". The effect is one of almost complete obfuscation, where neither word is quite clear and each is obscured by the other. I will be making a larger version of this and so this is, in effect, an artist's proof. 

"Sure", below, illustrates the baggage that seems to inevitably materialize during any long-lasting relationship. With a boss, with a spouse, with a sibling, or even with a public figure (see "President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of congress" further below). This baggage is created from years of hearing the words that someone actually says and measuring them repeatedly against what they turn out to actually mean, or what you repeatedly think they actually mean. In "Sure", the simple reply to the unrepresented, implied question of where to go for dinner is shown to be rich with the baggage of the personal history between speakers."
Sure, 2019
archival computer print. 21" x 30" edition of 10

"This print illustrates the baggage that seems to inevitably materialize during any long-lasting relationship. With a boss, with a spouse, with a sibling, or even with a public figure. This baggage is created from years of hearing the words that someone actually says and measuring them repeatedly against what they turn out to actually mean, or what you repeatedly think they actually mean. In "Sure", the simple reply to the unrepresented, implied question of where to go for dinner is shown to be rich with the baggage of the personal history between speakers."

I'm sorry. A thousand times I'm sorry, 2017
19" x 26", "I'm sorry" written 1,000 times in graphite on watercolor paper

"Words and phrases can be overused to the point of completely losing their sharp edge as carriers of thought and sentiment. In this piece, I've written "I'm sorry" 1,000 times on a piece of nice thick watercolor paper." 

Siri transcription of NPR report on the bombing at the Brussels airport2017
cotton muslin on wool prayer rug, 75" x 34"

Archival digital print (32 x 32")

" "Ghoti" is an interesting word construction that illustrates some of the inherent difficulties of the English language. I was making a study for a new painting and loved the digital study so much that I decided to make a print of it. It's gorgeous."

For more information on "ghoti", click here.

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Proximity and Distance
(the entire series can be seen here.)

Not necessarily political but definitely social commentary, Magnusson created this series in 2015. Here's his commentary:

"The internet is a great forum for bringing people together. It is also, by nature of how we use it, a great isolator -- creating an ersatz society where we can enjoy each other’s company from the privacy and solitude of our own homes. It provides proximity from a distance and allows us to filter our personas through its fun house mirror, presenting to the world only the images we have chosen.

On Facebook, there’s no more manicured presentation of our best face forward than our “profile picture.”

For “Proximity and distance”, I placed my iPhone right up against my computer screen, resting it in the hinge of my laptop. I scrolled each 50 x 50 pixel profile picture into position and snapped the photo, the mechanics of the act restating the very theme of this series. I then brought these blurry photos into Photoshop and further decreased their resolution by making each one a mere 13 pixels across. At this point, I enlarged them as much as I could (3200%, up to 418 pixels across), and took a screen grab of them at that size. 

Finally, echoing the social nature of Facebook, I paired them with other pics that felt right with them due to color or composition or some other factor.

This series presents the paradox of social media in all its colorful, amorphous glory. The photographs range from recognizable (person on a horse) to completely abstract; they are, at once, familiar and unfamiliar and, like the people behind them, they evoke emotions ranging from soothing to disturbing to haunting."

Unknown and Jessica, 2015
Archival computer print

Patty and Zoe, 2015
Archival computer print

Kimberly and Monica 2015
Archival computer print

Shelly and Karen 2015
Archival computer print

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Magnusson arrived in N.Z. just a bit after they'd celebrated their sesquicentennial --150 years since England had planted their flag on that land and claimed it for themselves. The Maoris had ruled themselves forever. Where was their flag? 

Magnusson made this short series on the fleeting nature of sovereignty. Here are a few from that series:

Mint and hydrangea flag, 1996 

Daisy and clover flag1996

Pine needles flag1996

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A one-off piece created on the computer, Magnusson said he was thinking about our "landscape then and our landscape now." The pretty green landscape is a Thomas Cole painting, the smokestack belching pollution is from Google images, the message is clear.

Pess/Op,  2006 
Archival computer print

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Animal Allegories

There's a long literary history of looking to nature for symbols of human existence: Housman, Hopkins, Whitman, Frost, Ackerman and on and on. Having studied English literature in college, it seemed almost inevitable that, when Magnusson began painting, he would start creating metaphors too.

Here below are a few of his "Animal Allegories" along with accompanying text explaining the symbolism in each piece.

The Spirits of Self-Sacrifice   1997  
Acrylic on canvas, pine and black birch frame   84 x 36” 

Artist's statement on "The Spirits of Self-Sacrifice": Many Aboriginal American tribes saw the wild turkey as embodying the spirit of self-sacrifice.  This painting is my consideration on the nature of self-sacrifice. The composition is divided into a light side and a dark side, light representing the pure, giving, Mother Theresa kind of self-sacrifice, and dark side representing the quid pro quo, favor-currying brand. The turkey, an innocent animal stands mostly in the light side.  He is standing on top of a chopping block, one foot resting on a pristine apple, representing the purer form of selflessness.  On the dark ground below, lies a rotting, worm-laden apple. Blue sky, white aspen trees, brilliant yellow leaves and the beautiful apple above.  The rotten apple, a rotting yellow leaf and darkness below.  Such is the dual nature of self-sacrifice as I see it, this duality represented by the leaves, the apples and the two-headed axe. And no matter how pure or impure one’s motives might be, there are always witnesses (even if it’s just one’s self) to all acts of giving.  There are eyes all around.

The Imposition of Order Upon Nature  1997 
Acrylic on canvas, white and black birch frame    63 x 63”

“Chaos is the law of nature.  Order is the dream of man.” 
-Henry Adams

   This painting is almost perfectly symmetrical.  The right side is a mirror image of the left.  Even the frame is symmetrical.  The only exception is the full moon. The painting is about the order that makind imposes upon nature, an imposition primarily in the service of industry and recreation and aesthetics.  An order that is not neccessarily bad, but certainly not natural. The unnatural, unhealthy, and  absurd end result of this order is shown here by the two-headed fish, while the two hills behind the bear represent the female, regenerative and nurturing aspect of “mother nature.”   

   The moon, relatively untouched by humanity, is the only element in the painting that exists outside of mankind’s (and the artist’s) imposed order.  It is shown how we see it here from earth, complete with the “man in the moon,” our species-centric interpretation of the highlights and shadows created by its hills and valleys.

Snapshot 1995
Acrylic on canvas, pine and birch frame 75x90”

This piece is one of my favorites of all time.   It's a scene I saw all too often while living in New Zealand, a harrier standing greedy guard over faceless road kill.   The frame's black corners are meant to evoke photo mounts, working with the title of this piece to give it the feeling of a tourist's photo.

I also enjoy this piece for an interpretation offered by a woman who saw it in N.Z.; she read the plant in the left foreground as a treble clef (from musical notation) and the fiddlehead fern in the right foreground as a bass clef, making this painting symbolic of the "music of the highways" of New Zealand.   None of this was my intention and I couldn't be happier that some thoughtful viewer brought their own perfectly reasonable interpretation to my work.

Loki the trickster raccoon   1998 
Acrylic on canvas, leather and brass rings   92 x 62”
   This is a painting about  early exploitation of the Americas by Europeans.  Specifically, Christopher Columbus, who thought he’d found a new path to India.  He'd made numerous trips to the New World, mostly to the West Indies, (mistakenly named that by Columbus himself), and each injection of European culture made things worse and worse for the natives of the area.  

This is also a painting about getting things wrong.“Loki” is the trickster, devilish figure of Norse mythology.  In most Native American tribal mythology, that figure is represented by coyote; however, one small east coast tribe, the Abnaki, believed raccoon was the trickster.  And so here, the exception is presented as the rule.  This raccoon has six arms, like the Hindu deity Shiva, representing India, which Columbus believed he had found.  In these arms are: a ship in a bottle (Santa Maria) and a compass with the directions all mixed up, both representing Columbus; a magic fire and a deck of playing cards with an American Indian caricature on the front, representing trickster qualities; and a thorned branch held behind the raccoon’s back, representing unpleasant surprises and an unidealized reality.

"New York based artist and political activist Norm Magnusson applies a personal approach to national issues in a series of paintings entitled 'America's Seven Deadly Sins,' and an ongoing collection of provocative road signs . . . "

- Laura Beckman, Tikkun

"What he came up with . . . were seven works playing with the ideas of our national penchant for guilt-free living, our increasing use of gambling as a motivator, the nation's misallocation of "financial blessings," the "tolerance of intolerance," our lemming-like attraction to mass thinking, the modern sense of environmental entitlement, and our increasing national arrogance."

- Paul Smart, The Woodstock Times

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America's Seven Deadly Sins
(Click here to see the entire series.)

#3: Hold (misallocation of financial blessings)  2006
Acrylic on pine boards

Homelessness, healthcare, hunger, education, salary inequities, unredemptive greed.

An archaic raccoon trap enticed the raccoon to reach into a box and grab a shiny coin.   Once the raccoon held the coin, his clenched fist couldn’t get back out of the box.  Inexplicably, the critter would not let go of its treasure to escape.   

#6: Mine (keen sense of environmental entitlement) 2006
Acrylic on found plywood scrap

Environmental shortsightedness in all its forms.   Waste, gluttony, selfishness, wanton destruction, rejection of responsible alternatives to the status quo, disposable culture. 

The central symbolic element here is a fat, young cowbird, sitting in the nest of an approaching mother robin, waiting to be fed.  Cowbirds are parasitic nesters; they lay their eggs in other bird’s nests and leave them for the host parent to raise.   The young cowbird will push out the other eggs in the nest, and even after having grown larger than the host parent,   will still sit in the nest waiting to be fed.  

#2: Waiting (the perversion of the American dream) 2006
Acrylic on board, spinning frame of wood, leather, and acrylic paint

Lotto mentality, gambling, litigiousness, get rich quick schemes, the stock market.   The insidious introduction of systematized luck into the American dream.

This painting shows a traditional symbol of craftiness and cunning, the fox, waiting by a rabbit hole for the grand prize to appear.   The ground has been cut away and we see there is nothing in the den.   The emaciated fox is surrounded by apples and the painting is surrounded by a wheel of fortune on which there are no numbers.   The wheel spins in either direction.  

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America's Seven Cardinal Virtues
(Click here to view the entire series.)

And, balancing out criticism for his country with praises for his country, Magnusson created "America's Seven Cardinal Virtues", a series of 7 paintings, some of which are shown below, along with explanatory text:

#3: Yes (Optimism) 2007 
Acrylic on maple slab  103 x 30”  

The optimistic nature pervades our sense of community and our explorer’s spirit, it is there in our expectation of justice and equality, it shapes our freedom. Red, white and blue flowers adorn this big piece of maple and surround a green throated hummingbird, which for me, is a symbol of a particularly American form of optimism: the near-faith that there will be enough nourishment around the next corner to justify the expending of the energy it takes to get there. In its tiny beak, he carries a banner with the word "yes."

#1: We (The strength of communities) 2007
Acrylic on wood with birch frame  42 x 49”

Diversity, altruism, the gorgeous mosaic, the helping hand, 
the power of the collective dream, the protection of the like-minded.

The honeybee is an  introduced species that is remarkable for its social structure, hard work 
and variety of races, the honeybee seems an almost perfect symbol for the melting pot of 
American community.  Just as the honeybee’s does, our communities provide the essentials for 
most of us: shelter, food and fortune, protection and warmth, the opportunity for industriousness 
and advancement.  The symbols in each corner of this painting represent those elements.

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"While his messages are high-minded and even high-brow, as they often are, they are not overly didactic or lofty. . . . Magnusson has something to say and has created a unique visual language throughout in which to say it."

- Lissa McClure, Review Magazine

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Decorating Nature

This series, in which Magnusson has completed nearly 200 pieces, is first an foremost an exercise in creating beauty. It is also an obvious commentary on mankind's unceasing attempts to groom and manicure nature for our own purposes. 

fig. 1: leaf of the clown tree
watercolor on leaf

fig. 92: certain mosses secrete a pheromone that reacts beautifully with maple leaves
watercolor on leaf

fig. 38: in autumn, some leaves will use color bars to help get everything perfect.
watercolor on leaf

fig. 189: in late winter, some oak leaves begin generating an inordinate amount of heat.
watercolor on leaf

fig. 73: a maple key with cartoonitus.
watercolor on leaf

fig. 144: a tuft from the neighbor's hydrangea floated over in that last storm
watercolor on leaf

fig. 142: some leaves lose themselves in others
watercolor on leaf

fig. 95: some oak leaves self-censor.
watercolor on leaf

fig. 138: beauty follows fast after some Spring showers
acrylic paint on leaf

fig. 186: Sycamore Anthracnose is an alluring but dangerous fungus
watercolor on leaf

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Installation views - State University of New York at Ulster

Norm Magnusson Bio

Norm Magnusson has an art career spanning over 35 years.


He’s in the permanent collection of NY’s MoMA, The Museum of the City of New York, The New-York Historical Society, The Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, and The Anchorage Museum of History and Art amongst many other corporate and private collections.


He’s received numerous awards and grants including two Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grants, A NYFA Fellowship, two NYSCA grants, a Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Grant and the Ulster County Award for Art in Public Places amongst many others.


As a visual artist, he’s shown in galleries and museums in New York, New Zealand, London, Paris and all over the U.S. He’s been reviewed everywhere from the NY Times to the Washington Post to the Utne Reader, Sculpture magazine, trendhunter.com, and many other national and international magazines, websites and blogs.


As a curator, he’s brought together exhibitions such as “FU”, which examined and illustrated U.S. fair use laws as they pertain to visual artists; “The Museum of Controversial Art”, which re-created some of the most controversial art through the ages; “Beautiful Nonsense”, which consists of objects and art meant to challenge the intellectual sure-footedness with which we move through our everyday lives; “abc@WFG”, a survey of text-based art; and “Abstract Evocative”, an exhibition of abstract art at WAAM in Woodstock.


As an educator, he’s taught art to under-privileged kids in NYC and over-privileged kids in Woodstock, NY, where he created a 12-class curriculum entitled “Art that’s Changed the Way I See the World Around Me” in which artists and gallerists and rock stars and film makers and authors and academics came and spoke on that topic with visual and audio aids. Most recently, he launched a new curriculum of appreciating and creating land-based art for 5th grade students.


For the last 12 years, on August 29, the date of its world premier in Woodstock, NY, Magnusson has produced an anniversary concert of John Cage’s “4’33” at the WAAM Museum in that town, a concert series originated to commemorate that town’s role in debuting this amazing piece of art.


A decade ago, he returned to his first creative love, acting; starring in community theater productions of plays by David Mamet and David Ives, and as Pozzo in Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” He performed in the The Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck’s production of Eve Ensler’s “A Memory, a Monologue, a Rant, and a Prayer”. He has also appeared in numerous feature films, mostly playing a shrink or a professor.


 In 2014, he wrote his first ever words and images monologue “The Signs in our Lives” and performed it at the Hudson Literary Festival. It was followed by “Swipe Right (Looking for Love in the Digital Era)” in 2017 and “Kill the Head (Losing my Self in a Zombie Movie)”, about his months working as a stand in and photo double for Bill Murray. In 2021, he wrote and performed “The Definition of Pornography”, which debuted at 11 Jane Street Art and Performance Space concurrent with his “PORNWEAVINGSEXHIBITION” of visual art. He is currently touring with his “Norm’s Memory Sale”, which will be presented in October, 2022 at the O+ Festival.


He’s the co-founder of FISHtheMOUSEmedia, a developer of educational apps for iOS, where his “Animal Alphabet” app was widely acclaimed and honored with a prestigious Gold award from the Parents’ Choice Foundation.


He’s the host of a once-a-week freeform radio interview program on RadioFreeRhinecliff.org entitled “Correct Me if I’m Norm.”


He serves on the board of directors of two 501(c)3 organizations, CultureConnect and GoodJTDeeds and is the father of 3 wonderful kids, all of whom are especially talented at seeing the world around them with appreciative eyes and a grateful heart.




Norm Magnusson Resume