Friday, November 12, 2004

“Common Ground: Discovering Community in 150 years of Art, Selections From the Collection of Julia J. Norrell” is the off-putting title of this former Arkansan’s spiritual journey through art, now at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

But, visitors, don’t despair. This show of some 185 photographs, paintings, sculptures and works on paper, selected from “Judy” Norrell’s still growing 1,500-object collection is not so much the story of an art collection as of one woman’s search for life’s meaning and personal redemption.

Reached by telephone at her Washington home, the collector, 69, says in her refreshingly blunt way, “I’m not an art person and never set out to pursue collecting. I grew up the child of two members of Congress from Arkansas and was raised in segregated societies, both in Monticello, Arkansas and Washington, D.C. I was definitely from the South. Still, I couldn’t reconcile my love of the South with the inequities and cruelties.”

In 1957, Miss Norrell went abroad to study philosophy on a Fulbright Fellowship at the University of Madras. It was on her return to the United States to study at George Washington Law School that she began for the first time to buy art seriously — usually intuitively. “She collects as artists do, from the gut,” says Virginia artist Bill Dunlap, whose his work is in her collection.

Later, while working as a lobbyist in Washington, she began collecting first editions of books. Miss Norrell “was especially interested in southern literature, and beginning in 1961 she sought scarce editions of William Faulkner,” writes Paul Roth, associate curator of photography and media arts at the Corcoran, in the exhibit catalog.

It was while searching for rare editions of Mr. Faulkner’s work that she stumbled upon an early purchase, Mississippian Theora Hamblett’s “Two Trees With Blowing Leaves” (1967). A charming folk painting that conveys childhood memories of the Southern landscape, it shows the “dream” component of many of the collector’s art objects.

From Miss Norrell’s literary interests grew her large, varied cache of narrative and storytelling art. This collection ranges from nonsophisticated folk images, such as Clementine Hunter’s “Cotton Pickers” to more complex views of poverty, such as Walker Evans’ Depression-stricken “Scene From Negro Quarter, Atlanta, Georgia.” The Farm Security Administration had assigned the photographer to document different aspects of the Depression.

Exhibit co-curators Philip Brookman, senior curator of photography and media arts at the Corcoran, and Jacquelyn Days Serwer, chief curator at the Corcoran, could have told the fascinating story of Miss Norrell’s collecting. Instead, they organized their selections around five themes: “Past and Present,” “Hope and Belief,” “Community,” “A Sense of Place” and “Memory and Tribute.”

The result is curatorial overkill and a barrage of art historical jargon. Such section titles as “Past and Present” only distract viewers from the essence of such images as South African Zwelethu Mthethwa’s photo of a black sharecropper holding his little albino son, “Untitled” (2002), and Linda Connor’s “My Hand and My Mother’s” (1967). Mr. Mthethwa’s blazingly colorful photo of the man and child sums up unconditional love. Its intensity is unparalleled in the show. Miss Connor’s “Hands” are more than artifacts of “past and present.” They also express love.

Washingtonian William Christenberry’s art is a favorite with Miss Norrell, and “The Bar-B-Q Inn, Greensboro, Alabama” — a series of color photos showing the ruin of an old southern shack — is also in this section. Yet his art is also, confusingly, represented in two other exhibit sections.

Another favorite artist is Mr. Dunlap, whose “Dogs …” gives a surrealist spin to a traditional Virginia landscape. The work is rather inappropriately hung in “A Sense of Place,” which trivializes the spirituality that infuses this work.

At the end of the exhibit catalog, Miss Norrell returns to the concerns about life that originally motivated her to collect. In her essay, “Let the Mystery Be,” she acknowledges that, despite her persistent delving, life’s universal questions can never be answered. Quoting her favorite singer Iris DeMent, Miss Norrell concludes, “But no one knows for certain/And so it’s all the same to me/I think I’ll just let the mystery be.”

Her choice of works by both known and unknown artists aptly reflects her search for answers to that “mystery.” Her “spiritual journey” through art will be a treat for many during the exhibit’s run through Jan. 31.

WHAT: “Common Ground: Discovering Community in 150 Years of Art, Selections From the Collection of Julia J. Norrell”

WHERE: Corcoran Gallery of Art, New York Avenue at 17th Street NW

WHEN: Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Tuesdays and until 9 p.m. on Thursdays, closed Tuesdays through Jan. 31

TICKETS: $6.75 adults, $4.75 seniors, $3 students with current ID, $12 families, free for members and children under 12. Admission is “pay as you wish” on Mondays and after 5 p.m. on Thursdays.

INFORMATION: 202/639-1700 or visit online at

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