Review: Tameka Norris at the Contemporary Arts Center

Installation view of Tameka Norris' Mercedes Benz-Successful, 2013, at the Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans.

Over the past five years, Tameka Norris has incorporated techniques employed by performance artists since the 1960s in her photographs, videos, and installations. In line with much work from that era, Norris’ presence in these works positions the body as both medium and subject. With their focus on the intertwining spheres of pop culture and contemporary art, the videos now on view in her “Family Values” exhibition also inevitably bring to mind Jay Z’s recently released Picasso Baby. While Norris’ style and seriousness of purpose differs greatly from the rapper’s concert-dubbed-performance-art-film, both point to critical issues surrounding performance art today, namely how to define it.

In Walking in an Exaggerated Manner, 2011-2012, Norris appropriates Bruce Nauman’s 1967-68 piece of the same name in which a static camera records the artist following a large, taped-out square on the floor. Hips sway and shoulders drop dramatically from side to side as Norris places one foot directly in front of the other, slowly tracing the square for approximately ten minutes. At the time of Nauman’s recording, he was among few actively exploring the human body as medium, questioning what “art” was by pushing the discipline’s literal and theoretical, not to mention commercial and value-based, thresholds. Decades later, time is Norris’ notable modifier, as we (and presumably she) assess whether Nauman’s action and the questions it raised remain relevant. Even more important is the intervention of Norris’ own body—black and female. Despite the many challenges Nauman’s work hurled at the status quo, his whiteness and maleness afforded him a comfort not automatically extended to a black woman by the art world then or now.

In another gesture of appropriation, Norris pairs Janis Joplin and Drake for the split-screen Mercedes Benz-Successful, 2013. Mirrored four times in the video, the artist’s dry, rough feet tap on a dingy linoleum floor as she smoothly sings Joplin’s lyrics, imploring God for money and fancy things. As the beat picks up and the lyrics turn to Drake’s desires (“I want the money, cars, and the clothes…”), the floor alternates between silver prisms and fur and the feet return, well-moisturized and shining with bright pink nail polish. Here, Norris juxtaposes the symbols of success in contemporary pop culture with the ’60s counter-cultural condemnation of material obsession.

Purple Painting, 2011, contrasts the more recognizable movements and sounds in the room and complicates the potentially limited reading of “cultural difference” as Norris’ chief theme. In this large projection, a purple-painted face takes center stage, violently dancing and repeating words and phrases such as ORANGE, BANANA, PURPLE RAIN, and ARE YOU READY in a high-pitched neurotic rant. As the character smacks on and mock regurgitates a banana, the viewer is again reminded of early performance tactics used to inject a new energy into a space, often creating an uncomfortable or unfamiliar atmosphere. Standing in front of this projection, which simultaneously places the viewer within the square outline replicated from Walking in an Exaggerated Manner taped out on the gallery floor, the experience becomes awkward and almost unbearable.

Although Norris’ works can be initially funny, each functions on a continuum of practices that are forming a new determination for performance art and its display. While performance art originated with anti-establishment and anti-market goals, often through a single live action that emphasized the immaterial qualities of the work, many artists have increasingly embraced both the document and the market. Think Marina Abramović re-performing her own works, appearing tête-à-tête with Jay Z, and the environments in which these actions have taken place. In “Family Values,” Norris offers distinct approaches through video for thinking about the uncertainties of performance, for one, whether these documents and re-performances are indeed secondary to an ephemeral performance itself or whether they, like Picasso Baby, are simply part of a new system of processing the conflations of art and entertainment.

Tameka Norris, Purple Painting (still), 2011. Digital video. Courtesy the artist.

Editor's Note

Tameka Norris’ “Family Values” is on view through September 29 at the Contemporary Arts Center (900 Camp Street) in New Orleans.