David Bowie, Lucky Cats, and Édouard Manet Mingle in Nora Griffin’s “Modern Love”

  • Installation view of “Modern Love” at Louis B. James Gallery, New York. Courtesy of Louis B. James Gallery, New York.

Across the walls of Nora Griffin’s Brooklyn studio, reference images and scrawled phrases peek from behind the paintings slated for her first New York solo show, at Louis B. James on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In one corner, a detail of Manet’s The Young Flautist (1866) and an image of Bob Dylan are surrounded by a constellation of scribbles that read “Kamikaze Harlequin Romance” and “The Savage Glitter of Downtown.” On another wall, the words “Elizabeth’s Studio” are jotted next to a paper cutout of a lucky cat, the cartoonish, talismanic figurines that line windows of Chinese restaurants. “They’re kind of gaudy, but I love that they’re actually charms; they hold meaning,” explains Griffin. “That’s something I think about with painting, too. Painting is all things. It’s an object that’s bought and sold, but it also absorbs a lot of different meanings, whatever the viewer is putting onto it. I guess I have this belief in the magic potential of a painting.”

Indeed, like the lucky cat or the surfaces of her studio, Griffin’s paintings hold many meanings. The canvases on view at Louis B. James aggregate a vast array of techniques, colors, and cultural shards. In Modern Love (2015), the show’s namesake work, Griffin’s own painted rendition of Manet’s flautist shows up, floating amongst large, lively brushstrokes, one of them filled with a pattern that recalls Warhol’s 1980s camouflage series. The painted phrase, “Modern Love,” joins the fun, too, as a nod to David Bowie and perhaps the dance hall-energy of Griffin’s gestures as they boogie across the composition. It’s a jumbled, pleasing taxonomy of the history of art, where all references are created equal. 

Griffin grew up in New York, surrounded by art of all kinds. Her parents worked in film and introduced her to the movies of Muybridge and Godard—she’s reimagined stills from magnum opuses by both directors in earlier paintings. As a child, she rollerbladed around the studio of painter Elizabeth Murray, the mother of a childhood friend and the inspiration for Griffin’s “Elizabeth’s Studio” scribble. Looking at Griffin’s new paintings, one has the impression that she has always been a sponge, absorbing images and information from countless facets of cultural output.

Painting, for Griffin, offers a means to fold these sundry references together—and cement the concoction in place. This process becomes especially relevant in a time when images, flashing across social media feeds, rarely have a long shelf life. “I’ve been really concerned with how the image has taken over the social; the way people interact with each other is through images—it’s like a narcotic,” she contemplates. “People have become obsessed with the image and the image standing in for the person, and I think it’s made time rapidly increase. I think of painting as a way to slow down time.”

A visit to Griffin’s show drives her point home. Hers are paintings to spend time with—and draw connections between. “In my mind, each painting leads into the next.” She gestures to 1982 (2016), a loosely composed, graphic painting where pink outlines of shapes resembling amoebas or an exploded camouflage pattern careen across the picture plane, extend onto the frame, and off the canvas. “In this piece, the shapes are moving off the frame, and here they’re contained within the frame. I like that tension and energy,” she says. Across from it hangs Diamond Heart (2016), a bright, tightly constructed painting where a monochromatic field of sun yellow is intercepted by hard-edged areas of topsy-turvy patterning, and another Manet detail, this time drawn from The Old Musician (1862). Here, Griffin zooms in on the faces of two boys at the center of Manet’s canvas. Their eyes, like black wells, gaze off of opposite sides of the canvas.

For Griffin, Manet isn’t only a touchstone when it comes to painterly technique and art historical import. “The faces of the people he paints have what I think of as a modern consciousness,” she explains. “Their eyes are both alive and nonliving. It’s this very strange liminal state.” It’s a state that could characterize our modern existence, caught between physical and digital experiences. It could also describe the effect of Griffin’s paintings—enchanting liminal spaces where symbols that represent cultural history and present mingle.


—Alexxa Gotthardt

Modern Love” is on view at Louis B. James, New York, Feb. 7–March 20, 2016.  

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