HOUSATONIC TIMES | Weekend Living
Washington’s Norman Sunshine Has Mini-Retrospective in Kent
Published: Thursday, September 23, 2010 | By Jaime Ferris
Throughout time, various aspects of humankind and the environment have captured the imagination of artists. For some it has been the dichotomies of nature and man, the splendor of Mother Nature and the evolution of a landscape over time, the sleek musculature and beauty of the horse and its symbolism throughout history, or, perhaps, even the imagery provided by the apple, a symbol of temptation and the inspiration for Isaac Newton’s theory of universal gravitation.
It is the latter for which Washington artist Norman Sunshine is perhaps best known to local art aficionados who recall his 2007 exhibition at the Morrison Gallery in Kent. Then, the artist shared with viewers a series of 1990s-era work in which he explored the symbolism and history of the apple, taking the fruit on a conceptual journey. In that solo exhibition, he examined the lowly apple and deliciously explored it through the many phases of art history until it became an abstraction and embodied a world all its own.
Mr. Sunshine returns to the Kent gallery three years later, but this time around with new artistic explorations. Opening Saturday with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m., the show features “cutting-edge landscape paintings and highly expressive pastels of horses,” as well as a number of earlier paintings and sculptures from Mr. Sunshine’s years in Los Angeles that Morrison Gallery owner Billy Morrison selected personally for the show. It runs through Oct. 24.
“The range of work and exploration of media will add up to a mini-retrospective,” Mr. Morrison said. “The show will take the viewer on a surprising journey, one that will reflect emotional experiences and surroundings that affected the artist’s outlook on life as well as his art, and transformed them into the realm of color, form and space. Paintings included range “from [his] hard-edge, cool, realistic figurative paintings of alienation of the ’70s, to emotionally charged and more abstract paintings, sculpture and steel wall reliefs of the ’80s, and finally, to when Sunshine decided to move to the East [Coast] and settle permanently in Washington,” Mr. Morrison added. “The exhibit will take the viewer on a surprising journey, of place, inspiration, daring and transformation,” Mr. Morrison said.
Mr. Sunshine’s love of art began as a young child in Los Angeles, and led to art studies at the University of Southern California and New York University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in fine art with an emphasis on illustration. He then studied at the Art Center School in Los Angeles, where he worked with pioneer minimalist Lorser Feitelson and William Brice. “That was a huge change in my life,” he said of the move to New York. “The Museum of Modern Art became my church,” where the artist immersed himself in the gestural works of such abstract expressionist as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. “It was a very exciting time for me,” he said. “Everything was coming to life.”
He returned to Los Angeles after graduation, making a name for himself as an illustrator for magazines, album covers and, later, television. He maintained a successful career in Los Angeles and New York, where he won numerous awards for his commercial work, but “serious” painting was always a passion for the artist.
“In L.A. and just out of the Art Center School, I got a job with a wonderful small ad agency, where I did work for Atlantic Records, among other clients,” Mr. Sunshine recalled. When Santa Anita Race Track became a client, Mr. Sunshine said something new and innovative was needed. “I looked at the photo-graphs from the track, of the jockeys on the horses, and I started sketching with bamboo ink and charcoal,” he recalled, “and what emerged was an expressionistic horse running toward you … that turned up in a full-page ad in the paper a few days later. Those sketches became the inspiration for a series of drawings of horses … though they are now pastels on paper.”
His life in L.A. also inspired several other series of paintings. “The L.A. paintings came when I had a studio in the 1970s downtown when it was quiet—nothing like today,” he reminisced. “I already had a show at a gallery at a time when everyone was painting in very monochromatic black. They were all talking about process, and at the time I was a representational artist. I wandered around the neighborhood—no street life, no shops—and I tapped into that feeling of being isolated by architecture, painting with a very hard edge, but very cool. … As downtown started livening up, they began to evolve.” Sculpture was also a passion, many of his early works rising like the phoenix from the ashes, except his sculpture was rising from the junk scattered on the beaches of Malibu during the 1980s. “My early sculpture came from my collection of junk along the shores at Malibu,” he said. “I would bring the junk home and arrange it on the floor on construction paper, creating collages out of the scraps.” They, too, will be in the show.
Mr. Sunshine returned to New York, where he continued to work as an illustrator until the business replaced artists with computers. That’s when Mr. Sunshine began his second career as art director for an advertising agency, while painting for himself on the weekends. His fine art career skyrocketed when he was approached by the man who designed the windows for Tiffany’s in New York. He urged Mr. Sunshine to display his paintings in the windows. “Naturally, I was thrilled, and when The New York Times wrote about the display, all hell broke loose,” Mr. Sunshine recalled. “I was doing one-man shows and, little by little, I was painting and showing my work full-time. It was like someone had flicked a light switch and it all became clear to me. My first show in New York actually consisted of landscapes—very flat and poster like—but I received wonderful reviews,” he recalled. “You have to have a thick skin as an artist. … I’ve had some great galleries, sold-out shows and wonderful reviews, and there have been bad reviews. I’ve been thrilled and I have been terribly hurt, but I love it all. What’s most enjoyable for me is the process. It’s been a wonderful adventure.”
At about this time Mr. Sunshine discovered Connecticut, its qualities lending themselves well to the work he was doing at the time. “It was while I was living in New York that I discovered Connecticut and bought a country house in Litchfield County,” Mr. Sunshine said. “That was when I started to use Connecticut and its landscape as a source of inspiration. I discovered that Connecticut is where my heart is. … I exorcised my way of painting and reinvented myself.”
Today, Mr. Sunshine is inspired by the countryside just outside his back door, but like his apple still lifes of the 1990s, these new landscapes abandon convention and blur the lines between abstraction and representation. “I draw everything that is in front of me,” he said. “I am never resting. I get restless once I finish a project because I want to start the next. Although there seems to be a hodgepodge of my work in the show, it really works together. You can see my emotion in each piece and how I react to the environment around me.”
Norman Sunshine’s exhibition opens with a reception Sept. 25 from 5 to 7 p.m., and continues through Oct. 31 at the Morrison Gallery, located at 8 Old Barn Road, Kent. It is open Wednesday to Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m. For information, call 860-927-4501, or visit www.themorrisongallery.com