The French have a concept called 'professional deformation' (déformation professionnelle), which is actually a sarcastic play on words based on the concept of professional training (formation professionnelle). In essence, they say that any profession changes a person if he/she works at it long enough, so that, after a while, everyone in that profession seems to look and act like everyone else in that profession. Every profession ‘deforms’, alters or limits a person’s perspective on the world as well as his/her manner of acting within the world. At the Memphis College of Art, John Harlan Norris seems to play with this concept in his show called Cons and Pros, possibly questioning the overreliance on professional development to the neglect of the development of more humane values in our society.
In the mid-to-late 19th century, in fact, a type of occupational portraiture was all the rage in America after the invention of the daguerreotype. Blacksmith, carpenter, cooper, drover… folks who had developed specialized skills were eager to be photographed with the tools of their trade. These daguerrotypes show no psychological insight into the sitters since that was not the point – the point was to document this person’s attainment of a niche in the social structure through his/her mastery of a skill set. The facial expressions are nearly the same in numerous cases, sometimes showing over-the-top solemnity, sometimes self-satisfied pride, sometimes just an empty stare into the camera by a person surrounded by the stuff of his/her profession.
Norris seems to use this as his inspiration for a contemporary take on the desire to be defined by one’s profession and how this solemn pride in professional attainment can mask and trap the humane development which becomes lost or unattained through the consequent déformation professionnelle. In Norris’ work the tools of one’s trade and other ‘visual signifiers’ of one’s profession become this mask and it is stifling and suffocating to the wearer as well as monstrous and oppressive to the viewer. What is meant to be impressive to the world now appears to be highly ridiculous. The obsession with mastering one thing, instead of blossoming in a more universalistic manner, makes these subjects grotesque instead of admirable.
This criticism of one-sided professional achievement is, of course, generally silent in a society where professional deformation is the highly lucrative goal. These practical skill sets are what confer status and, often, self-worth and the valuation of an individual within a society. Yet, concomitantly, compassion, insight, altruism, real charity and various other humane predispositions are not only downplayed but viewed contemptuously. The absurd situation where the more inhumanely deformed you become the more prestigious you become now predominates in our technologically developed society.
Norris seems to document the Mephistophelean deal everyone is confronted with – cripple your humanity, throw yourself unthinkingly into a profession, master it and gain the world’s riches, power and admiration. (Then, of course, do not be surprised when your only choices for leader of the free world become Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.) Each of these occupational portraits is a type of portrait of a type of Dorian Gray. They reflect the expectations of our society obtained through our educational system, our mass media, our deformed religions and even our intimate relationships. They call for us to reflect, therefore, on how or even whether it is possible for us to retain a type of humanism in a predatory and competitive economic and social system.
Norris’s exhibit runs through November 8, 2016 at the Memphis College of Art in Memphis, Tennessee.