Initially, Heidi Norton’s Prismatic Nature at the Elmhurst Art Museum looks very trendy—live plants are all the rage. However, Norton is arguably one of the reasons why there is a plants-in-the-gallery trend in the first place. Those familiar with Norton’s work will recall that her recent solo exhibitions at venues like the Museum of Contemporary Art and Monique Meloche have been more object-based: freestanding sculptures featuring live plants stuck in wax, smushed between layers of plexiglass along with grit and studio detritus. Prismatic Nature contains plenty of these kinds of pieces; though here, they’re less formal, packed with more photographs, found materials and tons of instructional and informational texts and schematics on the care, keeping and history of flora.
With the addition of all of this literal and literary content to peruse, Prismatic Nature has a distinct emphasis on research—though not the dry, didactic kind. Rather than giving the viewer a horticulture lesson via her fastidious archive, Norton’s amassed materials feel more like a freely-associated collection that allows viewers to seek and discover at their own pace. And you can sense that element of discovery through the pace of the exhibition—it encourages wandering, or dawdling. Norton’s sculptural works are accompanied by installations (of plants, structures, found material and borrowed objects) placed throughout the museum’s galleries, ceiling, and windows; there’s even more as you travel across EAM’s grassy lawn and the Mies van der Rohe-designed McCormick House attached to the main building.
There is an astonishing amount to look at in Prismatic Nature. In the museum’s main space, the Hostetler Gallery, mixed-media plexiglass panels have been suspended horizontally from the ceiling; two with nets, photographs, and upside-down plants hover above viewers’ heads, while a third is waist-high, with landscape site plans embedded in resin and anemic-looking plants with soil-laden roots slowly wilting on the surface. Luminous photo-, text-, and collage-based panels called “Screens for EAM” are set in the gallery’s windows—they resemble stained glass. Continuing to mingle the indoor with the outdoor, placed in the yard is a wooden shed-like structure visible through the “screens”; it happens to be an over-size camera obscura viewers may enter three at a time.
Stepping outside the gallery, and into the hallway that leads to the McCormick House, is a “take something, leave something” installation called “Trading Post,” consisting of plants, books, gardening gloves, microscope slides, and tchotchkes. Adjacent to the “Trading Post” is a show-within-a-show curated by Norton, an installation of works by three emerging artists: Spencer Stucky, Eileen Mueller, and Molly Brandt. The wall text explains that the three artists are students of Norton’s, each of them contributing works within the loose theme of nature and architecture. With content and aesthetics that so closely resemble Norton’s, these mini-shows complicate the notion of authorship, reinforcing the artist’s emphasis on the collaborative and the communal.
Once you reach the house, works by Norton, drawings by Stucky, photos by Mueller, and prints by Brandt are hung throughout the mid century modernist living room along with the addition of a host of library books, research materials, and plant specimens the artist has collected to fill the shelves and tables of the space. Van der Rohe’s “less is more” aesthetic is almost overwhelmed by Norton’s “more is more” curatorial approach.
Again, there’s lots to look at. Between reading the bountiful wall text, the library books, the print material embedded in the plexiglass works and windows, studying the specimens, and deciphering authorship amongst the multiple artists, Prismatic Nature requires quite a bit of effort on the part of the viewer. Fortunately, all that searching, studying and perusing is not as taxing as it sounds.
When viewers are inspecting a slice of petrified wood, leafing through a book entitled Woodstock Handmade Houses, or realizing that a small set of bookends in the McCormick House are actually two wooden sculptures that look like rocks by Chicago artist Mike Rea, it doesn’t seem like a series of facts one has to put together to come to a concrete conclusion. Rather than an academic manner of studying, this kind of learning feels more like discovery: The kind of learning that surprises, delights and intrigues. Amongst the discipline of horticulture, the hobby of gardening and hippie ecology, Norton creates her own theme on which to remind us of the pleasures of being naturally and freely curious.
Heidi Norton’s Prismatic Nature will remain on view at the Elmhurst Art Museum (150 Cottage Hill Ave., Elmhurst, Illinois) through August 24, 2014.