How Art comes into existence is a question whose answers are as individual as the people who make it. Norvel Trosst’s latest project, the Telford Chronicles, is an exhibit showing at the Lorinda Knight Gallery in Spokane, Washington (509.838.3740). It shows there from September 5th through the 27th. Trosst’s project combines aspects of traditional landscape photography, conceptual art, Pictorialist, Surrealist, and Expressionist art. It is also one of the most successfully conceived and executed exhibits I’ve ever seen.
By way of full disclosure, I have to admit to a few things. Norvel is a friend of mine. I’ve known him for many years. He asked me to appear in a film which he included in the exhibit and is central to the concept of the project. Norvel also has a photograph in Focus on Photography (page 215), the textbook Kathy and I wrote. And he included some of my haiku in a radio program that he hosts on public radio in Spokane. So am I impartial? Not at all, but what follows is my opinion and observations, so make of it what you will.
The idea behind the Telford Chronicles is quite ingenious. The exhibit is a narrative about the discovery of negatives and prints found after some vague apocalypse—it could have been in the far past, or the distant future, or perhaps some alternative version of our world. Part of the set-up of the exhibit is a film of the discovery of these lost negatives. I play one of the explorers in the film with Zan Agzigian, a poet and writer in Spokane. The photographs are Adrian Telford’s record of this apocalyptic world, sometimes serving as testaments of the desolation and destruction of the landscape and sometimes showing Adrian as the silent observer, the explorer of this world. Norvel plays Adrian in the photographs with a costume of camouflage pants, dark blue blazer, white turtleneck, and dark goggles. He doesn’t interact with the land, he acts as a witness to the destruction. He continues to wander looking for something undefined, whether other people, remnants of civilization, or his own past. Accompanying each image is a short statement, many of them bleak cries of anguish and grief. None were written with any particular image in mind, but after the prints were made, they were paired up together, not as explanations of the images or captions, but as affirmations of their shared emotional content.
Using photography to tell a fictional narrative is not a new idea—it has its origins in the costume portraits and tableaus of the Pictorialists—but in Norvel’s hands, it has a poignancy and weight that few photographers have matched. The isolation, the desolation, and the emotional depth come from Norvel’s own life. The origin of the project can be found in his own long-term illness that haunted Norvel for more than a decade. It’s all too true that sometimes, though not always, art and beauty comes from suffering. You only have to look at Van Gogh or jazz musicians like Charlie Parker or Billie Holiday to see evidence of this. But in the end, out of Norvel’s illness, his suffering, came a thing of great beauty. This is one of the most moving and emotionally resonant exhibits I’ve seen. There’s no question that the images and statements are dark and sometimes sinister, but still there is a quiet beauty and grace that underlies it all. If you are in Spokane this month, go see this show.