Grand luxe 1987 signed and dated 'Susan Norrie '87' lower right oil on canvas, 9 panels 219.0 x 276.0cm (86 1/4 x 108 11/16in).
PROVENANCE Crescent Gallery, Dallas, Texas, United States of America The Reg Grundy AC OBE and Joy Chambers-Grundy Collection, acquired in 1987
EXHIBITED Voyage of discovery: Australian paintings and sculpture, Crescent Gallery, Dallas, Texas, United States of America, 1987 Susan Norrie: paintings 1986-87, touring exhibition, L'Hotel Pozzo di Borgo, Paris, November 1987; Galerie Passages, Troyes, 9 January - 28 February 1988, Foire d'Art Contemporain, Stockholm, 16-21 March 1988
LITERATURE Susan Norrie: paintings 1986-87, exh. cat., L'Hotel Pozzo di Borgo, Paris, November 1987 (illus.)
Grand luxe is a wonderful example of Susan Norrie's use of lifted painterly techniques and imagery in a focussed, feminist critique of art, commodification and celebrity culture. In 1987 Norrie was the inaugural recipient of the prestigious Moet & Chandon art award. She spent the following year working in France, where Grand luxe was painted. It accompanies the series Tall Tales & True and Les romans de cape et d'epee and paints up the dizzying implications of art celebrity, inflationary pricing and floating cultural value in a globalising, consumerist art boom.
Norrie employs the post-modernist strategy of mining art history in order to paint our social and cultural condition, but is no simple image scavenger. She reads our corporatized culture art historically. Grand luxe situates a post-modern issue (of style, the challenge of painting's perceived irrelevance or inability to sustain cultural critique, its fetishized commodity status) across two centuries of painting: from the pre-revolutionary French art of Watteau through the measured, mid-twentieth century abstract expressionism of Hans Hoffman to Norrie's contemporaries like Gerhard Richter, and her own feminist investigations of style and ornament. This painting reminds us that even today, what is style but a visible sign of success, obsessively pursued, that structures our everyday lives?
Grand luxe also raises questions of originality as against genre, aristocratic and haute bourgeois power and pleasure in its grand commodity form and more popular, Americanised consumerism. As Norrie comments, "I have always tried to fuse high art and low art using painting history to depict or comment on everyday and often banal situations."1 It is a bravura piece comprised of domestic-scaled, squared modules that break up the dreamy, cinematic play of image details and abstract washes of colour. Conjuring up dream worlds of early and late modern painting alongside low-brow Disney World characters, Norrie paints to communicate parallels in the history and economy of taste.
The imagery of Grand luxe is partially derived from Watteau's late masterwork L'Enseigne de Gersaint, or Gersaint's Shopsign of 1720. This sign for the art dealer Edme François Gersaint transforms what was in reality a cramped art boutique, hardly more than a permanent booth on the medieval Pont Notre-Dame, in the heart of Paris, into a theatrical setting for the pleasurable encounters of polite society. Like the gallery booths jostling cheek by jowl at today's international art fairs, these cramped trading pavilions both created and followed fashion as they purveyed works of art as luxurious commodities to a bourgeois class.
Watteau's theatrical scene of aristocratic connoisseurship and polite society was itself humorously slanted through depicted nudes on the walls of the shop, suggesting more illicit (though of course suitably allegorized) pleasures. The work has often been interpreted by scholars as a commentary on the shift in aristocratic culture with the licentious Régent, Phillippe II, Duke of Orleans (17151723), after the death of Louis XIV. Norrie lifts telling details from the original depiction of clients and staff at the art shop: an elegantly-shod lady's foot steps up from the pavement, a young man's gloved hand stretches out to offer assistance from a panel above, framed pictures stack up to the right. As Norrie commented, "Throughout my work I have been concerned with the history of painting because in its different styles it is not unlike archaeology it can reveal understanding. Rather than merely quoting from that history, I want to make painting more relevant today. By rendering practically that history, I am able to deal with it autobiographically."2 Norrie adds her own ironic commentary to Watteau. She peppers her details from his old masterwork with the looming mitts and bulbous nose of Disney's Goofy, who cheerily plays his part in the grand art sale amid dreamy passages of abstract expressionist painting. As Virginia Spate has observed, are these figures more 'real', more remembered or memorable than images of humans? Norrie employs a loose, neo-expressionist style (what Helen Grace has called "the warm, wet angst of neo-expressionism", as meeting the 1980s need for 'representation', for the conceptual and market certainty of figurative imagery after the radicalism of the 1970s).3 Grand luxe's Disneyland characters enacting themed tragedy also queers the artist's seeming homage to Hans Hofmann and de Kooning's abstract expressionism, with its promise of authenticity and self-revelation. Ultimately, Norrie suggests, it is all just 'tricks of the trade'.4
As the artist recalled, Grand luxe incorporates "the cloak-and-dagger stories, developed from Umberto Eco's Travels in Hyper-reality, combined with epic/heroic, mannerist tendencies with a popular genre style in order to explore and question art as spectacle."5 Eco's influential essay used American Disney World as a metaphor for the way contemporary culture is now full of fabricated, themed environments that promise to be better (more beautiful, more interesting) than our everyday world. This, for Eco, was the essence of commodified culture, for behind every façade lurks a sales pitch. Grand luxe aestheticises the art deal in contemporary bourgeois culture as a theatrical world that feels, looks and acts so much better than the real blood, sweat and tears of art making. Yet Goofy's scaled-up Disney expression (all wet, bulbous nose, poppy eyes and clumping feet) takes on monstrous proportions, and our unease is heightened by the dizzy, haptic quality of the acidic colour. In this hyper-real, Disney-themed art fair, we feel a surge of desire for pleasure and purchase, and yet also sense the frightening implication of our complicity in this aesthetic economy.
1 Susan Norrie, Value Added Goods: West Magazine, vol. 2, no. 1, 1990, p. 26 2 Susan Norrie, Value Added Goods: West Magazine, vol. 2, no. 1, 1990, p. 26 3 Helen Grace, 'Susan Norrie: Objet D'Art', Art & Text No 31, Dec-February 1989, p. 77 4 Virginia Spate, Peripherique, exh. cat., Wollongong Regional Art Gallery, Woolongong, 1989, p. 18 5 Susan Norrie, op. cit., 1990, p. 26