The Field Notes Aesthetic: Heidi Norton at the Elmhurst Art Museum

August 8, 2014 | Published Articles, Writing

published by Artslant in July of 2014

Mies van der Rohe is such an historic presence. The aftershock of his innovation is still palpable, reflecting as it does the evolution of an “international style after World War II.” It is hard to imagine, therefore, how one might absorb his architecture into daily life—much less install an exhibition under one of his roofs. That is the challenge posed by the Elmhurst Art Museum, an institution that purchased van der Rohe’s prototype for suburban life, the McCormick House, in 1992. Chicago-based artist Heidi Norton rises to that challenge. Like a plant slowly stretching across a perfectly manicured wall, her solo show, Prismatic Nature, transforms the museum with increasing intensity. Norton not only grows into and through McCormick House, but revises van der Rohe’s utopic vision while doing so. In the hybrid space that emerges, she emphasizes institutional and personal collaboration, using organic forms that soften Modernist and New Age tropes, presenting a map of her own aesthetic ideals in the process.

To create the design of the house, Mies transformed one vertical strip of windows from his iconic 860 Lake Shore Drive skyscraper into a modern, horizontal bungalow. Although the single family home was conceived as an alternative to tract houses constructed in Levittown—its own utopian vision for post-war suburban life—the McCormick house remains unique; one of only three houses that Mies built in the US, it never caught on. When the museum purchased the home, it was disassembled, and paraded down the streets of Elmhurst to 150 Cottage Ave., where it was reassembled, and modified, becoming the Elmhurst Art Museum of today.

Perhaps the first instinct an artist would have when addressing such a sleek, modular structure would be to overwhelm each and every cranny with signs of personal affect. This is not Norton’s tact, however. At least not in the beginning. Instead, she emphasizes Mies’ own mission to integrate interior and exterior architectures, applying a series of glass screens on the windows of the Hostetler Gallery, the main exhibition space within the museum. Strangely sentimental, these site-specific tableaux filter light inside and outside of the otherwise empty space with plant life, textual quotation, photographs, stones, rocks, and resin. Mies floor plans, protruding nails, swaths of dirt, or foxed old notes written by her father about what books to read to best live off the land, are collaged together in a myriad of color, with rippling textures. The sculptures stand like semi-transparent pages of a field diary, inserting a subjective presence that troubles Mies’s seemingly objective windows.

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