On View52 Walker
April 8 – July 1, 2022
Nora Turato’s show consists of three large murals stenciled onto the far walls and colored manually, and seven large enamel panels mounted on steel. Exquisite exercises in graphic design, they have intense flat coloring in pale blue, green, red, and yellows. With plenty of black. And on them there are words taken from social media platforms, news headlines, exhibition press releases, and her own thoughts. Just as the billboards in Times Square advertise movies, clothing, and travel destinations, so her hyper-energetic works illustrate her slogans. “Horse sense goddammit showmanship!”, “Follow me you cowards”, and most mysteriously: “do they do they.” But where the words on advertising billboards are usually transparently meaningful, Turato has gathered fragments of meaningful speech that make no sense. Trained as a graphic designer, she employs a custom typeface, a modification of Helvetica. This is her first solo gallery show in the United States.
Turato’s art is difficult to classify. In advertisements the words often supplement an image. You see a glamorous model and learn who designed their clothes. Or you view a car and read the manufacturer’s name. But what is Turato advertising? Her title, “govern me harder,” comes from a sticker found in a dog park. Who is speaking, and what exactly are they asking? Your guess is as good as mine. Perhaps then we need a different model for her art. In comic strips, images and words work together to tell a story. Sometimes the characters are shown speaking, but often their thoughts are depicted. Let us think of Turato as creating abstract presentations of people on the street, large-scale comics, as if her abstract forms were speaking or thinking in interior monologues composed of the clichés that she presents. But what is she saying? To answer these questions, we need to place her art historically. If Peter Halley and Barbara Kruger had a child who made art, who used his colors and her words, the effect would be something like this. But Turato’s decorative panels are more graceful than Halley’s cells. And where Kruger often makes strident assertions, “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” “I Shop, Therefore I am,” or of course, most timely right now, “Your Body is a Battleground,” Turato’s words are harder to parse. And yet, in a different key, her art too is assertive. Were the Walker Street branch of David Zwirner to move to Times Square, you could enjoy ducking in to enjoy a respite from the visual grinding of the vast billboard advertisements. For strange as it may sound, there is something oddly soothing, even aesthetic about “govern me harder.” In one of her YouTube presentations, Turato says that she comes from a family of loud-spoken women. Her show certainly got my attention.
Puzzling over how to place this oddly compelling installation, I found my thoughts cast back to the great exhibition of Antoine Watteau at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, thirty-eight years ago. Near the end of his life, Watteau created his big The Gersaint Shop Sign (1721) for the gallery of Gersaint. In that picture, we see privileged Parisians watch as older artworks are placed in storage. The Sun King, Louis XIV, died in 1715, and the world was changing in ways that no one could imagine. Here is the parallel that governed my thinking about this comparison: just as Watteau’s shop sign soon was treated as an artwork and moved into the museum, so Turato brings contemporary street life into the David Zwirner gallery. And as Watteau creates an ideal image of the old regime, so she constructs an idealized vision of the art in our public spaces. By bringing the vocabulary of street signage and glossy print advertisements into that gallery, I am suggesting, Turato offers us an ideal vision of what urban life might be. Nothing, I know, could be more distant from Watteau’s finely tuned aesthetic than her rough-and-tumble verbally animated panels. What interests me, still, is how right now in Manhattan, as three centuries ago in Paris, artworks can revitalize our urban experience. In that way, it might be said, the eighteenth-century ideal of aesthetic pleasure survives even now, in this radically transformed fashion.