Billy Norrby’s debut solo show “Of the Vanguard” at CoproGallery is an impressive body of work that balances themes of societal meltdown with figures seemingly impervious to the strife roiling around them.
His complex style harks back to epically lush pastoral paintings of The Age of Enlightenment (such as luminaries like Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and Jean-Honoré Fragonard), yet his subject matter is footed in the turmoil of events unfolding today.
His work was featured in Hi-Fructose by JL Schable who had this to say of his work:
The impressive oil paintings reflect the classical styles of a past era, while the subject matter is infused with the tumult and unrest of our current climate as characters don gas masks amid war-torn cityscapes. Capturing the grit and strife of the underbelly of an apocalyptic environment, Norby also imbues the works with a subtle, melancholy romance, as beautiful women appear saintly and unmasked, seemingly immune to the threats around them.
Norrby’s ethereal take on the apocalypse is extraordinarily unique and quite unexpected, so it is no surprise that he is a deeply thoughtful person who gives great consideration to all of his pieces. He was kind enough to answer the five questions I ask all the artists, and his eloquent answers provide great insight into his work.
Ransom Notes: Billy Norrby
What artists or creative person has influenced you?
Well, in simple terms, there’s the creative people that have been crucial in my path towards the artist life and they include my older brother Jimmie, my former art director Johan Lindh and finally the excellent painting instructors Marvin Mattelson and Steven Assael who solidified my devotion towards painting.
In terms of artistic influences, there are almost to many to count, it’s an ever expanding topic. I’m very fond for instance of the symbolist movement, the pre-raphaelites and the romantic painters. I flip through books on Caspar David Friedrich, Bocklin, Odilon Redon, Jacek Maleczewski, John Martin, Max Klinger, Henri Fuseli to name a few. Sometimes Russian masters like Kramskoy and Repin, while other times completely different artists such as John White Alexander, Henry Raeburn, Edmund Dulac, and the champions from the golden age of illustration.
I love older cinema when it has a strong use of light and dark. Be that the works of Fellini, Bergman, German Expressionism or the universal horror movies. The photography of Eugene Smith or Julia Margaret Cameron. As diverse as my favorites are, there’s often a certain type of mood or quality of light I am drawn towards. I find myself returning to images that carry within them a sense of profound mystery, longing or melancholy. It’s the bittersweet that stays with me, that I keep expanding upon in my mind after I’ve moved on. With that said, there are many great painters I adore solely for their masterful skill and exquisite brushwork.
Not including other artists or art, what inspires you?
The creative environment is astounding here in New York, so there’s always much to be inspired by. Brooklyn is so wonderfully gritty and rusty! I did however grow up in a very different city, Stockholm, which is both old and beautiful but enveloped every year in a long, cold and dark winter. There’s the mixture of death and beauty and the balance between the two that my work tends to touch on frequently and I’d like to think that my background in Scandinavia might have contributed a little bit to that.
There is certainly a pull towards old architecture and ornate detail that continues to creep into my paintings. Ruins and manmade objects in decay fascinate me. I find such things beautiful, sad and nostalgic at the same time. I’m really not interested in “dark” as an aesthetic or as a label for my art, rather it’s matters that carry with them a touch of longing or melancholy that I find interesting to work with.
Obviously there are visual elements I find very pretty and would enjoy painting all day just solely for their look, but like most artists I know when they create an image, I try to draw from whatever has affected or shook me up emotionally. As such I’m inspired by interactions between me and family members, past relationships, loss, really anything that has left a mark over the years.
I do make an effort to keep up with the news and like most people, I’m certainly touched by the dramas we see unfold every day in these tumultuous times. Many great artists working now are concerned with environmental issues and deal with nature as a subject matter. For me the “other” main issue of this time is of course the anger, strife and social upheaval we seem to experience more and more globally. As such I wanted to touch upon elements of a “human” landscape, just as wounded or out of control as the environmental one. That is one of the reasons I’ve been drawn lately to imagery based upon protests and demonstrations, as they are amongst the most dramatic of human circumstances. Of course, a few months into working with my series, riots suddenly became a fiercely relevant topic as we’ve all seen.
What is the part of your process you enjoy the most?
Really seeing a painting come together from its chaotic origin and start to work as an image and a tiny reality of sorts. From a practical standpoint, I love figuring out how to get hold of a very particular piece of reference if I have some super-specific need. I sometimes sculpt or find myself stringing up dollhouse furniture, butchering model kits, whatever it takes to get what I need. It’s a nice break from always working with the brushes and it brings out a gleeful Macguyver-side in me. From a pure painting standpoint, I adore doing portraits and figures which is why I’ve always included them so far.
… the least?
Nothing really comes to mind as the least enjoyable aspect. It’s a relief obviously when I get to the point where I can start painting. My mood usually goes up and down as I’m working on a piece throughout the entire process. There are good days and bad days. I sometimes enjoy a painting less when I feel that I have already “solved” the main artistic challenges of that particular piece. In such cases, in my mind, I have already moved on to the next project and the rest of what I’m doing is just tidying up.
If you were NOT an artist, what would you be doing?
I used to write short stories and come up with all these elaborate story treatments before painting took over completely. Directly after high-school, I worked for a video-game company and was bouncing around twisting plotlines and crazy sci-fi concepts with the other designers. In an alternative universe, I would’ve perhaps aimed at becoming an author or screenwriter. It’s a little hard to imagine myself not as a visual artist though as drawing has always been there from day one. By now I’m just too brainwashed to turn around.
Norrby can most often be found painting in his Brooklyn studio alongside his equally talented studio mate Martin Wittfooth. Most notably, Norrby’s artwork has been featured in Spectrum and at the Society of Illustrators.
You may view more work on Billy Norrby’s website.