If food were art, the Norton Museum has become more of a tapas bar than a full-service restaurant. Working with abbreviated gallery space while the rest of the museum is under renovation, the Norton has eschewed large-scale, multiroom shows in favor of “Spotlight” exhibitions like its newly opened “French Connections,” which showcases the work of five French photographers, past and present. Like many small plates, it satisfies but also leaves you hungry for more—namely for a massive survey of French photography, the kind that could consume an entire floor.
For now (and for free, which certainly helps!), we have “French Connections,” a small show by anyone’s estimation, but one with nary a dud on the wall. Historic French photography is best represented here by Eugene Atget, a documentarian of street life sans the living: People never show up in the Norton’s Atget selections, unless you count the mannequins communing in “Storefront Window Reflection.”
Under Atget’s camera eye, the trees in the Parisian parks are always naked, the boats in the shipyard placidly docked, and the cafes are closed for business. In light of recent terrorist attacks in Western Europe, Atget’s early 20th century black-and-whites—elegantly printed by Man Ray’s assistant, Berenice Abbott—take on the solemn air of a nation in mourning. Yet there’s an equal amount of beauty in the absence, each image composed like a landscape artist’s carefully tended still-life.
Post-WWII American street photographer Erika Stone, on the other hand, focused her images of the City of Light on its many denizens. And this section of “French Connections” is arguably the most iconically Francophilian, from a man asleep on a park bench, complete with beret and winter coat; to an elderly resident glaring out a window while children pose for the camera in the spaces between potted plants; to an image cloaked in noirish light, a lone figure walking amongst the gutter water and classic architecture.
From there, the exhibition slingshots to the present, with a pair of terrific works by the familial artist collective Les Soeurs Chevalme. Their subjects are urban street dancers, but it’s the form that rivals the content: The Chevalmes hand-stenciled patterns into the negatives before imposing the portrait on top, so each photograph is really two artworks that comment on each other. Note the way the designs on a breakdancer’s hooded sweatshirt play gently off the stenciled filigrees in “Santo Lazarus,” or the way the spaceman-like stenciled images of “Arouna” reflect the way its dancer seems to be leaping toward the stars.
Less successful in this “Spotlight” format is Valerie Belin’s one example from her “Moroccan Brides” series, not because the work isn’t powerful but because it yearns for more context. Additional prints of her Moroccan brides would have enhanced the artist’s vision for spectators unfamiliar with Belin’s work; on its own, the piece feels a bit marooned.
Saving the most impressive for last, Yasumasa Morimura’s 1990 masterpiece “Portrait” consumes an entire wall, and for good reason. The artist spent months painting and recreating the backdrop for this gender-bending deconstruction of Edouard Manet’s once-scandalous painting, “Olympia.” Manet was an Impressionist, but Morimura’s recreation is nothing if not expressive. He portrays both the lounging Caucasian prostitute and the black-skinned servant, fluidly merging male and female, white and black, artist and subject. The lines blur so much in this one photograp that they’re pretty much rendered nonexistent.
Like any great tapas dish, it inspires you to order more: In the New Norton, a Morimura career retrospective would be more than welcome.
The Norton is at 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach. Admission is free. Call 561/832-5196 or visit Norton.org.