HAMTRAMCK, Mich. — “I want to know what love is,” artist Scott Northrup confides in me via email, and his reference to the Foreigner song of same name is neither ironic nor unintentional. Underscoring the whole of his solo show I WAS RIGHT HERE THE WHOLE TIME, at Hatch Art Gallery in Hamtramck, is a deep air of romantic longing. The subtext reveals a person prone to and socialized by movies and TV — to the point of struggling, at times, with the ways that life fails to live up to the standards set by fictional romance — and there’s no question that Northrup’s work builds from the intensely personal out towards the universal, via a bridge of pop culture. In “The Chapel of Popular Desire” (2015), a 38-minute video loops text of wishes and wants from pop songs before a disrupted assembly of chairs. Here, as in many of the video works in the show, Northrup is grappling with the power of desire to shape identity — from the things we want which drive our daily actions to the longings that spurred our parents to form us and so become our inheritance.
If television and movies represent a strong influence on Northrup’s art, so does his Roman Catholic upbringing, which included Catholic school, serving as an altar boy, and even meeting Pope John Paul II. “I think if I fought it or ignored it, it’d be no different than hiding how anything else has affected me,” says Northrup. “It’s in me; why not employ it?” And so he has, in the form of altars — in fact, one could argue that each piece in I WAS RIGHT HERE THE WHOLE TIME is an altar of some kind. These include “Uncle Bud” (2008), a Virgin Mary–topped assemblage on a shelf that combines objects memorializing the artist’s diabetic uncle — golf tees, pencil stubs, the upper half of a set of false teeth — with jars of various sugars. Another, “Recurring Nightmare” (2013), fills a windowsill with 30 iterations of a Jackie Kennedy bust in cast plaster, disfigured over and over in different ways — an attempt by the artist to reconcile himself to a violent attack on his mother that took place when she was 30 years old. “Memorializing and memorizing this is an act of quiet devotion for me,” Northrup explains. “So, the statement here isn’t necessarily on religion, but religious items and rituals becoming a part of performing the everyday. They have their own weight and meaning, but they are also a part of a bigger assemblage.”
“Quiet devotion” summarizes Northrup’s aesthetic well. In particular, he deals with gender in an unexpectedly gentle way, even as he explodes some of the rigid markers of masculine identity. “Where the Boys Are” (2015), an eight-channel surveillance piece, uses clips from seminal coming-of-age films from the 1980s —Valley Girl, The Last American Virgin, Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High — but the scenes are recut, reframed, and retimed to isolate the male characters in their rooms, revealing these objects of mystification as they wait, think, pine, talk on the phone, sleep, or jerk off.
This focus on the young male as both object and subject carries through to a piece on an adjacent wall, “1990s” (1991–99/2015), which consists of 67 Polaroid self-portraits by the artist, a subset of some hundreds of images he created during that time; Northrup has never previously shown the work. The retrograde medium of Polaroid serves as a visual counterweight to contemporary selfie culture, resulting in a subject that floats ambiguously within time and gender. Punctuating Northrup’s major themes in the show are touches of plaintive emotion, such as “The Letter” (2015), a wall-size blowup of a closure-seeking statement that will be relatable to anyone who’s been on the pointed end of a sudden breakup. There are also moments of surprising humor, as when the plaster landscape of “Virgin Bluff” (2013) turns out to be a relief casting of the Virgin Mary, with a miniature plastic deer posed on her face.
Northrup handles the highs and lows of human emotion and identity with a delicate hand, sly humor, and romantic flair. It may seem that he’s only recently breaking out by exhibiting his work solo over the last few years, but his steady participation in group shows and the assertion of his current show’s title would suggest that, like the overlooked best friend–cum–love-interest in an ’80s movie, he has always been here, just waiting for us to notice.
Scott Northrup: I WAS RIGHT HERE THE WHOLE TIME continues at Hatch Art Gallery (3456 Evaline Street, Hamtramck) through October 31.