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Kings and Peasants

Sam Shippee & King Norman

A new show at the ATWATER Gallery in Kingston promises vibrant visual intrigue. Six extraordinary puppet sculptures by Sam Shippee share the gallery with cardboard paintings by a mysterious artist named King Norman.

Sam Shippee’s figure sculptures conjure wondrous guardians, travelers, explorers and protectors. They evoke guardian figures such as medieval gargoyles, militant saints and Japanese Kamakura protective figures. No wonder, as those works were created to impart security during times of profound political and social change not unlike our own times.

Suggesting archetypes both from literature and popular culture, Shippee’s works are extremely charismatic. Ringing the gallery like sentinels, they appear poised to jump off the wall, engage in conversation, present a drama or continue on

a legendary journey. Assembled from scraps of painted material, cardboard, found objects and textiles, tools, and even shoes, each figure hints at the unique, complex, heritage of a mythological hero. Some appear to have suddenly arrived in our present time, battered and slightly comic messengers out of the ancient human past. One character, dressed in fur, bears a distinct resemblance to of Oetzi, the “Ice Man”, who perished in the Italian Alps during the last Ice Age. Others are prepared to move towards our perilous future: two are outfitted as dystopian astronauts; one is garbed as a gladiator. All are intriguing. What is their story? If they were to engage in conversation there be plenty to talk about. Sharing the gallery space are the tempera and glitter glue on cardboard paintings of an enigmatic, elusive character named King Norman.

Who is King Norman? Why did he paint this glittery series of bright grinning faces on reused cardboard? We don’t know.  All we know is that he couldn’t stop making art. Each painting was numbered, dated, and signed “King Norman.” Their numbers run into the thousands. Doug Shippee, curator of the ATWATER Gallery, collected his work, but never met the elusive artist.

At first glance, King Norman’s paintings appear to be a form of “outsider art:” art made by someone working outside of mainstream culture, probably self-taught. This lively, colorful, work is decidedly “pop.” However, we just don’t know the story of this work, or where the artist got his inspiration. All we can do is guess, and have a good time doing so. It might even be that King Norman is not the artist’s name; but instead an homage to a unique west coast man named Norman Rosenberg, who owned a beloved chain of toy stores in the 1950’s, and also ran a popular local children’s TV show entitled “The King Norman Show.” Or, perhaps all the paintings, created out of the artistic media of childhood, were intended to be viewed by children, and not meant for adults at all! Who knows?

Come to the gallery and make up your own mind. There is something magical about just looking at these works. Muse about the unknown artist. Become bewitched by the colors. Ponder the presence of Shippee’s puppet figures. Enjoy the mystery.

— Elaine Avinoam