Paper Tigers: Dawn Blackman and Devlin Shea bring their domesticated artwork to Normal Projects

"Room 3: Spring", courtesy of Normal Projects
Though many galleries are described as intimate, not many rival Normal Projects, located in curator Emily Schroeder’s Bridgeport apartment. The size of her living room and attached kitchen, Normal Projects has hosted a bevy of emerging artists since its first opening in 2008. The shows began when Schroeder, an urban planning graduate student at UIC, was passed over for an archival position. “With nothing on the agenda,” she emailed friend Luke Dowd and arranged for him to display works at her place, creating “a salon of sorts.” As with past shows, the two artists currently on display at Normal Projects both have personal connections with Schroeder. Devlin Shea, who presented a handful of mixed-media paper works, was an undergraduate at Alfred University with Schroeder, and Dawn Blackman, a video artist, met through friends in Brooklyn. Appropriately, the opening felt more like a dinner party than the typical night of wine-soaked posturing a gallery’s new show brings. A middle-aged, camera-clutching “documentarian of goings-on” who looked on in sober confusion only heightened the sense that the space wanted no part of the Art Establishment.

But for all the benefits of Normal Projects’ convivial atmosphere and DIY spirit, the art lacked craftsmanship. Shea’s animation of a roughly-sketched boat, a woman’s face, and the transit of a flock of red sequins (though they might have been holepunch chads) between the two was uncompelling. Repeated viewings failed to reveal any greater depth beyond deliberately frustrating primitivism. Blackman provided the two strongest works, muted collages emerging from silhouettes of cell phones that pointed to the emotional contradictions of communication at a distance. It’s not a groundbreaking insight, though it was adequately presented. But on the whole, the collages didn’t live up to the vigor of Blackman’s starting points, ghostly enlargements of an iPhone and a clamshell competitor. Though a focus on paper works is part of Normal Projects’ conceit, something about their presentation evoked the feeling of a grade schooler’s painting on a fridge–a something that Normal Projects seems well aware of, having previously titled a “curatorial experiment” in Schroeder’s apartment “Fridge.” Ultimately, the practical insight of Blackman’s work seemed to be that stark white walls and a concrete floor elevate anything, and the best way to emphasize a work’s weakness is to display it above a handsome aspidistra. The vibrant row of houseplants below Blackman’s collages could have held my attention just as well, which is not really the slur on Blackman it might sound like.

The show’s curatorial end demonstrated a penetrating understanding of the works. Criticizing a friend, even mildly, is difficult, but describing Blackman as “speaking specifically in twos,” with “an interesting duality transpires in her works on paper” phrases “semisincere derivation” and “sensitive to wholly understood problems” palatably. Alas, Shea’s work doesn’t get the treatment it deserves. One can only interpret the conspicuous absence of commentary as a manifestation of that German concept of “neutralizing by not speaking about.”
In perspective, though, Normal Projects represents positive developments for Bridgeport’s germinating arts scene. Opening an apartment gallery may seem like a trivial risk on the part of the curator, but it demonstrates a change in the neighborhood’s character. While the growth of an arts scene on the South Side may seem like an inevitable consequence of low rents here and higher rents on the North Side, it’s been a slow process. In Schroeder’s estimation, art here is driven by intellectually charged innovation, not “the size of the party.” Let’s hope that time proves her right.

Dawn Blackman and Devlin Shea at Normal Projects, 2844 S. Normal Ave. Through February 28. Showings by appointment.