Waltham artist Ross Normandin discusses amusing and unsettling elements of his new exhibition at GRIN Gallery in Providence.
Ross Normandin doesn’t believe in hell. He does find the concept amusing, as evidenced by his new exhibition at GRIN Gallery in Providence, Rhode Island. But Slabs and a Shell; a Hell has little to do with the fiery damnation realm seen in religious texts. The Waltham, Massachusetts-based artist jovially explains the title for this show of cast silicone rubber objects instead insinuates “that you’re entering GRIN and this is a certain hell. Everyone has their own idea of what that might mean for themselves. I think it’s a bit absurd.”
That absurdity is immediately apparent in the artworks, which Sarah Montross, associate curator of deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, calls “hermetic and comedic.” Pig, consisting of several molded wall-mounted rubber pig snouts and cords of identical design and varied colors, treads the line between painting and object. They provoke questions in the viewer by pushing a functional object (the mask) into a nonfunctional form, while inviting both amusement and discomfort.
“I’m interested in the playfulness of these art objects,” Normandin says. “People laugh at them and I wonder if they think it’s funny or if it’s just unsettling. I laugh when I’m uncomfortable. For me it’s impulse. So it’s interesting that people use that as a reaction to something they’re not quite comfortable with.”
The at times bleak sense of humor within his art has demonstrable roots in Normandin’s own experience. His father and mother both died of cancer within eight months of each other, and Normandin says his father’s attitude “has a lot to do with how I make work,” recalling a sense of urgency in life. He fondly notes his father’s ability to make people laugh even in the throes of his illness. That comic persistence resonates with much of Normandin’s work. “I think there’s something interesting about comedy with tragedy, how things can be funny still and we can still laugh.”
“A lot of my work is about me,” Normandin says. “I don’t want to talk about myself, though.” Part of Slabs and a Shell; a Hell actively deemphasizes the artist through “Short Holiday,” a series of silicone rubber molds of his own face. “I don’t want to make all these objects and have people come in a gallery and say ‘Who’s this guy?’ It’s an exact cast of my face, and I made multiples, so at a certain point it’s generic, a generic face.”
“No longer the question becomes who is this person; it becomes what’s the object, what’s the object do, how is it positioned? The face at that point doesn’t quite matter. That’s what I’m really interested in—to create things that are really grounded in who I am and what I’ve been through and continue to go through and how those things may connect to other people.”
Even while seeking those connections, Normandin avoids making art like a puzzle with a single answer or endpoint. “I don’t want to make work where the viewer eventually has a conclusion,” he says. “I prefer if a viewer sees my work and comes back to that work a year later and they feel completely different about it. I don’t want it to stay put.”