Studio Visit : Julia Norton

Photos: Maggie Shannon

November 15 2015

Julia Norton is part of an ever growing and evolving group of artists making art in and around digital space. But where most artists make work exploring the use of novel digital mediums, Norton focuses on digital space as the subject matter to be explored with mediums developed and tested by artists over centuries.

The abstracted spaces and vibrant colors feel unexpectedly familiar to the cohort of society that spent childhood exploring the digital spaces of video games. Eschewing direct references to the cultural objects that surrounded her, Norton’s work is displays a relationship with space that comes from long spans of interacting, processing and interpreting her inspiration. Dreamlike in their content, her works incite a hope for interaction, a desire to enter them and explore the environments she has created. We spoke with Norton in her Brooklyn studio about her inspirations and her work.

Hometown: New York City

Current Location: Greenpoint, Brooklyn

How do you take your coffee? Very strong with whole milk, no sugar

What’s your Sunday Ritual? Sunday is probably my most boring day, but I love it.  Sleep late, make breakfast, watch an episode of Star Trek Next Generation, go to the gym (if motivated), then studio (also if motivated), then head to my friend’s recording studio to watch Game of Thrones with a crew of awesome people.  If its nice out I might go for a hike in Harriman State Park with my parents or some friends.

What originally brought you to painting and the arts? Were you raised in a artistic family? 

Yes. My father is a scientist and my mother works in dance and theater. When I was a kid one weekend my father would take me to a science museum like the New York Hall of Science in Queens and another weekend I would go to the Met or MoMA or a performance at the Joyce Theater with my mom (and/or dad). Both of my parents are heavily passionate about all art forms, and encouraged my sister (who is a curator) and me from day one. Being in New York City growing up was also majorly to my advantage, and exposed me to so many things. I am very very lucky.

Painting came later for me. I thought I wanted to be a set designer in high school, and then an architect in college. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I started taking my painting practice more seriously. I suppose I could never pick a career so I felt like being an artist meant I could be everything at once, and be interested in everything all the time. Now I could never imagine a world where I wasn’t making art.

Your work feels very interior, from your series of Atriums up to the most recent Dark Level series. What is your relationship to place and environment? 

I think it started from my architecture background. I have always been passionate about spaces and environments, particularly interior spaces because they feel so heavily connected to memory. My dreams are always spatial, first and foremost, and I think about space in a very personal way. I like to provide whoever is looking at the paintings with a stage for whatever they want to happen, or whatever they want to see.  I never include figures for this reason. I want the viewer to be alone in the space.

Can you speak to your use and relationship with color? 

Its intuitive. That may seem like a simple answer but its true. I mean I studied color theory and I feel like I understand color perception on a scientific level. But I never really think about it when i’m painting, and I don’t like following rules. In art school I had a few people tell me that I use too much black or I should use navy or deep red instead of black and they were probably totally right at the time but still I just went ahead and just made a whole bunch of almost all black paintings so who knows.

Color for me, like spaces, like everything I put in my paintings, is very personal and associative. Nothing is by accident.

Your more recent work recalls digital spaces with a sense playfulness. Do you have a relationship with video games or playful digital spaces? If not, what inspired these contained landscapes? 

I think in the past I would get very theoretical and psychological about my work and think that it was all coming across, but it wasn’t. I had to reach really deep in myself at one point and ask where is was all coming from. I’m a nerd, I always have been, and I realized that I had to make nerdy work to be true to myself. Star Wars, laser tag, Legends of the Hidden Temple, Super Mario Brothers, these are the worlds that speak to me, this is what my past is informed by, and there is no reason not to make art about it seriously. I was definitely encouraged by other artists who I admire who have made similar choices and taken risks with references. The important thing is that even if the work comes across as playful, or nostalgic, or a little funny, it is very serious to me. In my eyes it is still about struggle, and obstacles, and life choices, even if there is a Super Mario sewer in it.

Can you walk us through the production of the Dark Level book? What inspired the move to the printed form? Is there anything in particular that sets this series apart? 

It kind of happened like magic. I had been casually talking to my very close friend and enormously inspiring artist/performer/writer Max Steele about maybe doing some sort of book together (he has made many zines in the past). Later that day we walked over to the Bushwick Art Book and Zine Fair just to check it out. My friend Isabelle Jusseaume was tabling for her press Art Vandelay and we got to talking. I loved all the projects her and her collaborator Maggie Shannon had made and we briefly talked about working together.  Then it just snowballed from there. I am so proud of the book and loved the collaborative process. Its such a great feeling to work with some of your favorite people and make something you feel good about.

Are there any contemporary artists inspiring you at the moment? 

Always. I was just in Spain and saw the Ree Morton show at the Reina Sofia and it was just so powerful.  The Robert Gober show at MoMA last year was life changing. The Wynne Greenwood show up now at New Museum is incredibly inspiring. In general I like work that is open, honest, brave, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. I’m an educator as well, so I have a lot of respect for work that is both accessible and deep.

I am also very fortunate to surround myself with brilliant artists who continuously inspire me: Karen Lee, Ryann Slauson, Kerry Cox, Erin Sweeney, to name a few. I also go to a lot of shows and currently greatly admire the bands Heaven’s Gate, PC Worship, and the solo performer Clapperclaw.

What’s next? 

I’m hoping to take some time off in the winter next year to take a little break from painting and focus more on interactive, sculptural projects. I’ve done a few installations in the past that rely on participation and I’d really like to explore that further.

Julia Norton’s newest zine, Dark Level will be available from Art Vandelay on November 17th.

Maggie Shannon is a photographer based in Brooklyn.