One of the great triumphs of human memory is the way we're able to recall a place in spatial terms.
When we think of our house or the Sierra, say, we don't envision it in terms of a flat surface. When the image comes to mind, we can move through it, if you will, whether it's flinging open the front door or tromping up a snow-covered peak. We can feel the space, the dimensionality, the volume. That we can do so without ever turning a handle or lifting a boot is a testament to the brain power of homo sapiens.
The paintings in Ara F. "Corky" Normart's new exhibition at the Fresno Art Museum speak to the complexity of capturing a sense of place. It's as if we're seeing it through his eyes.
For more than 50 years, Normart has painted a changing Fresno downtown. In mostly watercolors, but also a few acrylics, most of them offer recognizable views of familiar landmarks. He captures a sense of not only what this jumbled urban environment looked like at the time he painted it — but also of his experience of being in that space. Normart shows us what it feels like to be bound, whether you like it or not, to the heart of a city.
These aren't wholly representational works, but there's plenty to recognize. In his "SP Crossing," we see some of his favorite landmarks: the Southern Pacific railroad crossing, the old Security Bank Building (now known as Pacific Southwest Towers), the Greyhound bus station with its defining dog logo.
His "Downtown" includes more favorites: the Crest Theatre, the Fresno Water Tower, the Guarantee Bank Building with its giant "G."
Common to the works is Normart's deliberately flattened perspective. He re-creates scenes in which buildings and landmarks seem to stack up against each other like dominoes. The effect is similar to what happens when a photographer uses a long lens from a distance on a subject, thereby compressing the foreground and background, making objects appear closer together than in real life.
Though it can be a challenge to find human figures in these works, the overall impression is, surprisingly, a sense of activity and bustle. Through use of texture and color — look for the American, Mexican and Armenian flags — he captures how a downtown can feel vibrant.
It's a good time for the Fresno Art Museum to mount the exhibition, considering the community is in a period of heightened discussion about the future of Fresno's downtown. An accompanying "crowd sourced" exhibition, titled "Downtown Visions," includes works in various media collected from any citizen who wished to participate. Together, the two shows make an intriguing pair.
While Normart has long admired downtown, the exhibition isn't entirely a love affair. The artist — who had a long career in advertising, and is also internationally known for his stained-glass windows and sculptures — can get downright cheeky when it comes to the heart of his hometown.
In his "Monkeys Running the Zoo," tucked in the right lower-hand corner is a strip of building that is unquestionably the futuristic looking Fresno City Hall. In front is a sign that reads: "Do Not Feed."
In many of his works, the lack of easy and secure parking downtown is referenced. In his "SP Parking," for example, red parking curbs say "Not Here." In "Park Somewhere," the "Not Here" sign is repeated.
Normart, in his 80s, has been around long enough to watch the Fulton Mall experiment of the 1960s become reality. And now, as the pendulum swings back and the reality of reopening the mall to traffic seems inevitable, he is wary. He doesn't think downtown will ever become a shopping district again. If the mall is opened to traffic, he asks, where will that traffic go?
But while Normart questions some of the decisions made about downtown, he remains a passionate proponent.
One thing that stands out in this show is a strong sense of verticality. A common ingredient of most downtowns of any size is the existence of multistory buildings. In his paintings, Normart emphasizes the heights of downtown structures, creating something of a canyon effect. Somehow it's hard to imagine him achieving the same vibrant sense with a painting of Fashion Fair, say, or River Park.
In one of the most abstract paintings of the bunch, "Valley Town," we see a series of tall, building-like forms rising in the center of ordered, earth-colored grids. It's the view of downtown as seen from the agricultural outskirts in 1958. There is nobility in those tall structures, a sense of coexistence between humans and the earth, that you can't get from a sprawling housing development.
In the next gallery, as part of the "Downtown Visions" exhibition, a poem titled "Going North to Down" by Fresno poet laureate James Tyner captures the feeling of seeing those downtown skyscrapers in the midst of this fertile valley for the first time:
We are scared of this new town, my four-year-old sister finding my hand as the 41 freeway angles up, and there is a building, and another, rising up, sprouting forward, and I won't know this till writing this poem, but hope was what I felt.
Normart captures that sense. Now he can only hope his downtown lives up to what he sees through his artist's eyes.
"C. Normart: 50 Years of Downtown" and "Downtown Visions," through Dec. 29, Fresno Art Museum, 2233 N. First St. fresnoartmuseum.org, (559) 441-4221. $5
"Ann Page: Selected Experiments, 1971 to 2012." The annual Distinguished Woman Artist honor bestowed by the museum's Council of 100.
"Ansel Adams: Mountain, Coast & Desert." Works from the permanent collection.
"The Extraordinary Familiar: Beth Van Hoesen and Mark Adams." Works from the permanent collection.
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6373, email@example.com and @donaldbeearts on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.