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Student makes film stills into painted squares

Artist creates minimalist-inspired show

Julia Sumpter

Eric Norby paints a piece for his upcoming show at the MSA/GPC Craft Studio. He began making grid art after a visit to a museum that features minimalist artists in New York.

October 31, 2013 | 12:00 a.m. CST

The brush forms neat, circular strokes as it smoothly melds the water and chalky color. Eric Norby’s left hand continues this motion until liquid and watercolor paint are inseparable, and the brush is drenched. Then, he carefully lifts his hand to paint the empty half of a white piece of paper. He has already drawn a free-hand grid on it, and six columns on the right side of the grid are filled with shades of grey. He methodically fills the top box of the seventh column.

Nebraska-born MU Master of Fine Arts student Eric Norby currently spends at least 20 hours per week in his studio at Bingham Commons and a total of 30 to 40 hours on MU’s campus working on his thesis project.
He is also organizing paintings for his upcoming show in the MSA/GPC Craft Studio, which is set to run from Nov. 4–22.

“Centrifugal”

Where: MSA/GPC Craft Studio in Memorial Union
When: Nov. 4–22; Mon.–Thurs., 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Fri., 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sat., noon to 6 p.m.; Sun., noon to 4 p.m. ­
Cost: Free
Call: 573-882-2889
Online: craftstudio.org

“Centrifugal,” Norby’s first solo show, consists of images from movies that Norby enlarged in Photoshop and then transferred to a canvas with oil paint. Seven pieces will be in the show, but he has created at least 50.
Next year, Norby will have a thesis show with his friend and fellow MFA student, Charlie Thompson. Norby’s work for his thesis will be very similar to his “Centrifugal” show but will feature his watercolors.

He begins each painting by watching a movie in search of a specific kind of image: stills of airplanes heading toward the camera, creepy houses and other foreboding locations, moments when the scene is entirely covered in shades of one color. Each painting is part of one of the three groups: “Airplanes,” “Ominous Monoliths” or “Monochrome.”


Norby works on a watercolor piece for his upcoming thesis exhibition, which will feature his works with fellow MFA student Charlie Thompson. His upcoming MSA/GPC Craft Studio show is painted with oil paints. Photo by JULIA SUMPTER

“Norby is a very processed painter,” says Matthew Ballou, Norby’s art professor and graduate committee member. “He’s not super romantic about his work until he’s got the finished product.”

After stumbling upon an appropriate image in a movie, Norby takes a screenshot and downloads it into Photoshop. Then, he zooms in on a certain section to the point of abstraction.

The pixelated image becomes a mass of squares of different shades, and Norby selects a piece of canvas that maintains the same proportions. He draws a grid onto it free-hand — no rulers. He mixes paint so it’s as close to the color of the original image as he can make it, and then he begins the week-long process of transferring paint to canvas. He’s left-handed, so he starts with the top right corner of the grid and works his way down to the bottom left.

Norby is attracted to images that we see every day. He says we are conditioned to think these images should mean something — whether it’s an airplane taking off, a darkly lit and run-down house or a picturesque landscape.

“I wanted to point out the visual similarities from one image to the next,” Norby says about the reason for his meticulous process. “The pixelization subtracts information so each image looks similar.”

After a trip to New York in January 2012, Norby began his lengthy journey with grid art. He visited the flagship museum for minimalist artists, Dia:Beacon in Beacon. He fell in love with the work of Robert Ryman, an American artist known for his abstract white paintings. “I was trying to figure out how I could take the ideas of the minimalists and make them contemporary,” Norby says. “People have worked with the grid before me. But as far as I know, no one has done pixelated video stills.” He believes grid work incorporates both minimalism and high modernism. Norby identifies with the contemporary neo-modernist movement, which emphasizes the process of creating a painting and the two-dimensional surface of the artwork.


Norby paints with watercolors and oil paint. His show uses a grid system to depict film stills. Photo by JULIA SUMPTER

The complex ideas behind Norby’s images might not be readily apparent, but the results are dynamic. The shades of neutral and vibrant colors spread out before the viewer on canvases as big as 80 inches by 36 inches — “door size,” as Norby says. He created each one with different angles in mind. He carefully considered the viewer looking close to the painting, from a distance or on a computer screen.

“If you spend time with Eric’s work, you can get to his meaning,” Thompson says. “And you don’t need a degree in art history to do so.”

Norby has no immediate artistic plans after he graduates in spring 2014 except to move beyond the grid. For now, Norby is focused on his upcoming show and thesis.

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