Are they surrealist agit-prop? Are they left-wing kitsch? Are they “lowbrow” masterpieces before their time? Whatever else they are or seem to be, the ambitious, detail-rich paintings and drawings that San Francisco artist Irving Norman cranked out between the 1940s and his death in 1989 are the spawn of Mexican mural painting and science-fiction illustration, a kind of Orozco-meets-Metropolis nightmare, an angry acid trip right out of Howl. As political commentary Norman’s Boschian rants tend to the obvious, but every so often they pack a wallop. And pictorially, once you get past all the cartoon-level figuration, they have a compelling rhythmic drive. Actually, that cartoony quality is one of Norman’s double-take charms, something that draws you up short at first but once you get used to it seems inevitable. Himself influenced by the graphic novellas of the 1920s and ’30s, Norman may have been one of the unspoken influences on the Bay Area’s underground comix explosion. There’s more than a little Crumb here — and Spain, and Robert Williams, and through them on to today’s hyperrealist dystopians.
Norman lays a heavy trip, so the soul — and even the body — might use a good cleansing after seeing his work. “Healing” provides that in spades. A veritable Wunderkammer of good juju, this crowded anthology of amulets, medicine sticks and other devices for righting spirit and corpus will cure simply through proximity. Spanning the globe with artifacts from Australia, North Africa, Haiti, China, Israel, Indonesia, Mongolia, native America and nearly a score more places, “Healing” mixes the scholarly with the personal and the didactic with the mystical. You feel good just standing among the retablos and urns and sacred scripts. But you feel even better as you get close to things and find out how they work. Irving Norman at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, 490 E. Union St., Pasadena; Wed.-Sun., noon-5 p.m. (626) 568-3665. “Healing” at the Craft and Folk Art Museum, 5814 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.; Tues.-Fri., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (Thurs. until 7 p.m.), Sat.-Sun., noon-6 p.m. (323) 937-4230. Both thru April 15.
Healing 5, Democratic Republic of Congo, circa late 19th century(Courtesy collection of Woods Davy)
Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco