Internal and external worlds collide in the psychologically charged art of Norma Tanega

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Drugs, for better or for worse, are a central theme in Norma Tanega’s current exhibit at White Columns, at the late artist’s first New York exhibit. Interior landscapes: Paintings 1967-2005 includes 19 paintings, half of which are abstract landscapes and the other half are metaphysical self-portraits inspired by various prescription drugs or the mental states they induce and their lingering effects.

Despite the purported antidepressant effects of Wellbutrin, “Medicine Head (Wellbutrin)” (2005) suggests otherwise. A colorful bearded face is painted as if it is melting. He looks tired, dejected, and in full failure mode. Likewise, the face of “Zoloft” is made up of brightly colored regions – a map of emotional territories – the subject’s true identity is immersed somewhere deep within him.

Installation view of Norma Tanega: Interior landscapes: Paintings 1967-2005 at White Columns, New York (photo: Marc Tatti, courtesy of White Columns)

Tanega, who died in 2019 at the age of 80, has always had to navigate a hyphenated identity. She identified herself as a lesbian, painter, poet and musician, composing songs and playing piano and guitar. Her mother was Panamanian and her father Filipino. Although she was already a stage musician as a teenager, she was also engaged in the fine arts, obtaining a master’s degree in fine arts in 1962. From that point on, she alternated her musical and artistic career.

In 1966, she had a surprise hit song with “Walkin ‘My Cat Named Dog”. Then, after touring Europe and a five-year relationship with singer Dusty Springfield, she returned to her native California, where she lived a low-key life, dividing her time between teaching, painting, and music.

Display of ephemera in Norma Tanega: Interior landscapes: Paintings 1967-2005 in White Columns, New York (courtesy White Columns and the Estate of Norma Tanega)

For the most part, the energetic colors of Tanega’s sorbet are reminiscent of the artwork of other celebrities who have maintained a parallel practice in the visual arts, for example Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Henry Miller. In such cases, it’s hard not to read the autobiography in every brushstroke. Tanega’s approach to tagging comes across as a flow of consciousness, as if she’s engaged in a conversation with herself, not with the outside world, or art history, for that matter. A sense of listening to her inner self permeates this show, and that’s one of the reasons the show is worth seeing.

Norma Tanega, “Butoh” (1980-1997), oil on canvas, 30 x 24 1/8 in.

The most revealing work is his oil painting “Hydrochlorothizade” (2005–6), named after a drug that treats water retention and bloating. It represents a vibrant and multicolored head that seems to open wide. The top of the head is a swirl of psychedelic colors and shapes, but the eyes are empty.

When looking at the abstract landscapes that make up the other half of the exhibition, it seems clear that Tanega is using the landscape as a metaphor for the mind. Although they contain shapes that read like mountains or hills, there are no landmarks, trees, buildings, animals, or people. In the absence of such known things, paintings like “Ondulation” (2004-5), “Internal Landscape” (1997), “Beyond the Dumping Ground” (2004) all involve a world of personal feelings and reflections, made perhaps more for herself than for her audience.

Norma Tanega: Interior landscapes: Paintings 1967-2005 continues at White Columns (91 Horatio Street, Manhattan) through October 16. The exhibition was organized in collaboration with Matt Werth.

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