Rebecca Norton: Q&A

with Megan Bickel

Rebecca Norton is interested in extrapolating magic. Back in 2017 she traveled to Bedford County, Pennsylvania to experience a gravity hill—a geographical location where the layout of the surrounding land, partnered with the perspective of a road, produces an optical illusion, making a slight downhill slope appear to be an uphill slope. Thus, a car left out of gear will appear to be rolling uphill against gravity.

Norton observes that, though these spaces can be measured and the optical illusion exposed,individuals generally find grace in explaining these places away through mysticism, or magnetics. If these actions deny the reality that we can simply at times be deceived, then in Rolling Uphill in Neutral, at Moreman Gallery, Norton makes the argument that perhaps, occasionally, it isn’t always a bad thing to recognize that what we see is not to be believed. At times, it can be outright pleasurable.

Rolling Uphill in Neutral consists of ten paintings, a couple of drawings and etchings, and five sculptures that vary wildly in material: wood, paint, acrylic, and blown glass. The juxtaposition between this sculptural work and the paintings holds tension between how and where the body experiences land, and how we perceive our body experiencing the land.

Megan Bickel:  You have worked with prisms, mathematics, and phenomenology1 for as long as I've known you, and I find the return to landscape painting intriguing. What led to this shift?

Rebecca Norton: The landscape has never been entirely absent from my work. Specific approaches to painting certainly were, as were degrees of representation. The shift you are referring to is the use of the motif of landscape in a pictorial sense. Am I correct to say this? In any case, the shift came from choosing to focus this show on a particular landscape and I wanted to visit it in multiple ways. I think that is why you see the pictorial elements. I think I typically approach painting from a place of wanting to see how close I can get to depicting pure perception and I didn't want to do that here. I wanted it all to come in.

MB: Can you explain this re-insertion of landscape motifs? Do you think it is related to the gestural, viscus approaches that have made themselves visible in this collection of paintings? This type of mark was missing from your work previously, yes?

RN: Oh! The joy of painting, right? It came quite naturally. I decided to let the paintings run loose in their use of landscape motif, as I was using painting as a device to investigate the way I was perceiving this specific landscape. The longer I was painting, the more I began interpreting the paintings with other works of art. This kind of thinking cannot be helped. So I decided to let several motifs taken from art history into the work. They show the viewers the references coming to my mind as I continued to work on the show—the lenses through which I saw the landscape.

As for [loose] gestures, yes, loose gestural marks are new to my paintings. We co-construct our environment and our world through the gestures and actions we make as individual entities and through the languages which connect us. In Double Reflection, there are these marks that were produced by me swiping my thumb through the wet paint, removing some of it, and making visible the layer underneath. It produces negative spaces framed by a distant tree's limbs. [This mark] directly indicates my body being in the world, and [my body] providing an action that gives shape to an idea.

MB: You mention art historical motifs, in particular, German Romanticism2, do you want to clarify where this rests in this body of work?

RN: Phillip Otto Runge's use of geometry in his illustrations has been highly influential. He was influenced by forces of nature and nature's organic growth. Runge found an analogy to human experience in his ideas on nature. From his point of view, one could interpret human emotions and experiences as appearances of nature. And nature appears, as well, in the form of knowledge. To the latter point, Runge combined elements of geometry with his illustrations of botanicals. Symmetry and radials, amongst other examples, underlay his compositions. His painting The Morning is composed of a combination of geometry with organic form—[exemplifying acquired] knowledge with nature. It's also incredibly symmetrical. He even painted frames.

The painted frame is dark, which intensifies the [illusion] of internal light beaming outward. This painting is so luminous. I bet it shined in its time. Runge wanted to symbolize the spiritual in this piece, so he framed the central image and, using glazes, painted it in such a way to make it appear backlit; as one would experience in a cathedral.

MB: This body of work stimulates a sensation of rolling, for me. In your paintings, the use of single-point perspective paired with this new deconstruction of mark-making revels in the uncanny.

RN: Oh, well, thank you. I was unsure if pairing Euclidean3 and Non-Euclidean Geometry4 [in proximity to] landscape could produce that sensation.

In a couple of paintings, I try to confuse the vanishing point of single-point perspective. I know the rotations in the Affine Geometries5 move around a displaced or "lost" vanishing point. Aligning this geometry with the anticipated vanishing point of a road's perspectival lines was meant to produce a sense of instability. Sensing Instability was my first trial with that idea. It was then essential to let work slide through abstractions and representational elements because they are also about an idea coming to mind. These ideas (that present themselves as questions) include considering how a person reasons the experience of rolling uphill backward in neutral. Indeed, it is with combined past experiences of being on a road paired with landscapes' past experiences. There's also an immediacy to consider. I try to come at it from multiple ways at once.

A quote I once read by French mathematician Maurice Frechet comes to mind: "What do you call the ‘real world?’ I am not an idealist. I believe in what is lived, but to think of a plane, do you live it? What do I think when I say, 'I think this room?' Either I speak of the lived impressions, rigorously untranslatable, rigorously unusable as a rule, or else I do the geometry of this room, and I contemplate mathematics. What do you think when you think of a plane? The geometric properties?"

When Frechet thinks of a room, he can speak of it as something lived yet untranslatable as a rule, or he pulls the geometry of a plane from the work he does on the room to contemplate this as a discernable abstraction of his thinking about the place. He is asking Cavailles where he thinks his knowledge of a plane is derived if not from the experience of living it. In my work, you experience geometry as well as lived impressions. I believe we reason with both.  

MB: These glassworks depict a form that synchronistically feels like a boulder and a pelvis, also stimulating that sensation of rolling. In your paintings, the sense of rolling is cultivated by the landscape, color, and use of multiple approaches to geometry. However, these sculptures use a motion of falling inward, and for me, it is imagined as rolling inward into the uterus, resulting in a sensation of my upper body rolling itself inward. Can you explain where you feel the connection between the body in space and this amorphous depiction of the pelvis lies?

RN: Do you know Courbet's painting The Origin of the World? It was provocative in its time. The painting depicts a woman's exterior genitals and her abdomen, legs open wide and resting. A white sheet covers up her chest, and her face cropped from the image. I can recall years back when driving down a palm tree-lined street in Pasadena, [California], I saw the landscape morphed into those sweeping outlines of Courbet's painted torso and legs. I've sat with that [connection] for years, and I saw it again when painting this landscape.

At the end of Gravity Hill Road, before the road disappears in the landscape, is a tree. I saw that tree as a dark spot in all my pictures and drawings of the space, something I could fall into. The painting of Courbet came to mind again, staring at that dark area. When on Gravity Hill Road, the landscape I was looking at formed geometric outlines much like that road in Pasadena from years ago.

I envisioned a sculpture that folded in from the top, left, and right. I felt it was an excellent form for a landscape. Surprisingly the word "phallic" came to mind when thinking it, and I had no idea why. I wanted to know, and I thought the initial idea was so interesting, I went after it. The first working model was made of clay. I was wondering about its appeal and decided to make it bigger. Slicing it in half (to think about constructing it like slices of the earth), I discovered a flaccid form in the center. Much like a pendulum hanging on an unmoving body, that form felt like the landscape I was trying to emulate.

MB: This is a painter's show; meaning this body of work doesn't appear to be depicting a narrative outside itself. The history and indexical qualities of painting are useful tools to describe experience or investigations of perceptual phenomenon. But these paintings are paired with etchings from 2017, acrylic sculptures from 2018, and collaborative (made in partnership with local glass artist Casey Hyland) glass-blown work made this year. Where do you think this body of work began, and what is its connecting thread?

RN: The paintings depicting geometric space came from my desire to make 3D models of non-euclidean geometric figurines. I was in graduate school, and had my thesis exhibition coming up. I was versed in painting at the time, not model making, so I stuck with painting the geometry because I knew that I could investigate it there. It did not bore me to do so . . . and it still doesn't bore me. The acrylic plexiglass etchings throw linear expressions of Affine Geometry into 3D space. I think I finally found a way to make figurines with them. They are bodies. I now work with them and other more geometric space / bodies.

MB: In Karen Gillenwater's (21C, Louisville) statement on your exhibition, Rolling Uphill in Neutral she quotes you, saying "We devote more time interpreting phenomena, rather than questioning how we perceive it. . . [and] our perceptions deform reality to create stability. . ." Could you elaborate more on this observation? And perhaps where you find this observation resting in your relationship to painting?

RN: Our interpretations are based on what we perceive. But, as the adage goes, "looks can be deceiving." Our knowledge is limited to information gathered through experience. And though this gives us a lot to work with, it's important to be aware of intellect's malleability. In answer to how this plays in the paintings, I think it rests in my interest in illusion and the perception of color.


Rebecca Norton’s Rolling Uphill in Neutral will be on view at Moremen Gallery in Louisville, Kentucky through March 20th, 2021. For information on visiting the show visit the gallery’s website.

  1. The science of phenomena as distinct from that of the nature of being.
  2. The dominant intellectual movement of German-speaking countries in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, influencing philosophy, aesthetics, literature and criticism.
  3. The study of plane and solid figures on the basis of axioms and theorems employed by the Greek mathematician Euclid.
  4. Consists of two geometries based on axioms closely related to those that specify Euclidean geometry. As Euclidean geometry lies at the intersection of metric geometry and affine geometry, non-Euclidean geometry arises by either relaxing the metric requirement, or replacing the parallel postulate with an alternative.
  5. A geometry in which properties are preserved by parallel projection from one plane to another. In an affine geometry, the third and fourth of Euclid's postulates become meaningless. This type of geometry was first studied by Euler.



Megan Bickel (MFA 2021) is a multi-disciplinary artist and writer working at the intersections of painting, new media, and data visualization. She is the founder and organizer of houseguest gallery based in Louisville, Kentucky, and is currently pursuing her M.A. in Digital Studies of Language, Culture, and History at the University of Chicago.
An abstract painting that is taller than it is wide, with skinny wedges of color radiating out from a high center point, like a messy pie chart of vaguely nature-esque greens, oranges, browns, purples and whites. Below this section is a slightly more orderly grid on a flat plane, that appears to be tilted back in space. Made of the same general colors as above with less green. One and Another (2021), oil on linen. All images courtesy of the artist

A low-detail landscape painting that depicts a grey paved road disappearing into the horizon line near the middle. On the right are green trees, on the left and against the background under the sky are rocks, or mountains, made up of purples and yellows and grays.
Rolling in Neutral (2021), oil on linen

A low detail landscape painting that depicts a solid grey paved road that disappears into the horizon line, and all around it are green shrubs and trees. Above it is a grey sky.
Gravity Hill (2021), oil on linen

A sculpture made up of stacked pieces of thinly cut wood, with the result being like some detailed topology or geologic model.
Interior Landscape (2021), plywood and paint

Detail of the wood sculpture that emphasizes the layers.
Detail of Interior Landscape

Rebecca Norton

Image of the painting, The Origin of the World, 1866 by Gustave Courbet, which depicts a cropped nude figure laying down amid white sheets, such that only parts of a torso, breasts, abdomen, vagina, and part of some thighs are in frame.
Gustave Courbet, The Origin of the World (1866), oil on canvas. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

RUCKUS, 2018-2023
Louisville, KY