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The Norman conquest: Yes, Rockwell is here, but it's only one of five intersecting shows at NCMA

Plus: The Rockwell wars: Five decades of critical division

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In order to enter the exhibition space of American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell at the North Carolina Museum of Art, you have to pass through a gallery with no pictures at all, a blank-slate antechamber whose walls are inscribed with a Google search's worth of quotes about the artist, adding up to a textual cacophony of raging opinion:

"Our Dagwood Bumstead of art," "widely loved," "homelier than apple pie," "the Holbein of Jell-O ads," "ranked among the Old Masters."

As one passes through this imprinted din, it is hard to imagine there was a time when no one debated the artist who gave us that indelible (and insidious) Thanksgiving painting, "Freedom From Want" (1943). In 1916, when The Saturday Evening Post ran his first cover illustration, "Boy With Baby Carriage," few could have predicted that it would be the first of a decades-long succession of tableaux so ubiquitous, so familiar, so penetrating into the popular psyche that just the name Norman Rockwell would become synonymous with a scruffy-but-idyllic, scrappy, peculiarly American mythos.

And then there's the repeated objection to his work: Rockwell's America was notably devoid of people of color, societal upheaval or any other motifs that might conflict with an idealized domesticity, one that would spill like warm cocoa across an imaginary map of the United States and confer upon the culture a poignant brand of nostalgic hominess.

The NCMA did well to include those quotes at the exhibition's entrance. They set a tone of inquiry (as opposed to awe) and encourage all of us to draw our own conclusions about the work. The one surprise for me about American Chronicles was its culmination in two paintings that Rockwell did in the 1960s. By then he'd made his fortune (and been through 10 years of therapy with Erik Erikson, the renowned psychologist and psychoanalyst credited with coining the phrase "identity crisis"). It is unclear if Rockwell had harbored egalitarian values all along—even as he conformed to contemporary expectations by relegating people of color to positions of servitude in his illustrations—or if he later had a moment of clarity. Regardless, his lifetime of Americana only makes these late works of social criticism more stunning.

"The Problem We All Live With" (1963) frames a small African-American girl walking in profile, flanked by the outsized and faceless bodies of men with gripped fists as she makes her way to school. A racial epithet is scrawled on the wall behind her, and the blood-red splatter of a hurled tomato drips down the wall to the ground. In "Murder in Mississippi" (1965), one man holds the collapsing, bullet-ridden body of another against a dark, desolate landscape as he stares down shadows of an angry mob. Another figure lies on the ground, face-down, motionless. I never thought I'd describe a Rockwell painting as a sober testament of social conscience that unflinchingly depicts racist America. And yet it is.

And yet, these works tell me something new about Rockwell the man. They don't rewrite him as an artist. Despite his undisputed prowess as a painter and his capacity to appropriate and mimic Old Master techniques, there is no revelation in viewing his work writ large. I mean no disparagement when I say that Rockwell is an illustrator par excellence. The work rendered in its intended Saturday Evening Post scale and framed by the magazine's signature black-and-white graphics is ultimately its most realized version. I noted with interest that the exhibition catalog offers almost no visual references to the magazine, a move perhaps meant to reinscribe the artist into art history as a capital-P Painter.

Is it coincidence, or commentary, that on the same floor as American Chronicles we find the work of another great American illustrator, John James Audubon, and a room that features three illustrators of children's books: Eric Carle, Arnold Lobel and Ashley Bryan? Two other shows currently on view also serve as dynamic counterpoints to American Chronicles. One features sculpture by North Carolina artist Bob Trotman, whose gravity-defying wooden figures of people floating in dreamlike suspension greet you at the museum's entrance. These neutral-toned protagonists riff on Rockwell's normalcy—everyday folks who've somehow pierced the veil and grapple with a decidedly non-normal, post-gravitational experience.

Finally, we come to Binh Danh's devastating mementos mori, two separate series that incorporate found archival photographs depicting traces of genocide in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Danh's chlorophyll prints reveal the faces of victims, photographed by the Khmer Rouge before they were executed—a glimpse of fleeting, incomprehensible grace imprinted on the impossibly fragile surface of pressed leaves. Danh's other series of daguerreotypes also depicts archival portraits, as well as images from Angkor Wat. These prints are done on highly silvered surfaces, so when we look at these faces we also see our own.

On a recent press tour through American Chronicles, John Coffey, the museum's deputy director of art, spoke candidly of Rockwell's "sins of omission," the narrow lens through which he viewed and constructed his particular Saturday Evening Post version of America. If Rockwell committed such sins, it is safe to say that Danh has committed acts of compassionate and conscious inclusion as remembrance, as meditation, as art of the highest order.

[Click Page 2 or Full Text for "The Rockwell wars: Five decades of critical division"]

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