Drugs, for the better or worse, are a central theme of Norma Tanega’s current exhibition at White Columns, the late artist’s first New York show. Internal Landscapes: Paintings 1967-2005 includes 19 paintings, half of which are abstract landscapes and the other half metaphysical self-portraits inspired by various prescription drugs or the mental states induced by them and their lingering effects.
Despite Wellbutrin’s purported antidepressant effects, “Medicine Head (Wellbutrin)” (2005) suggests the opposite. A colorful, bearded face is painted as if melting. It looks tired, beaten down, and in full breakdown mode. Similarly, the face in “Zoloft” is composed of regions of bright colors — a map of emotional territories — the subject’s true identity submerged somewhere deep within.
Tanega, who died in 2019 at 80, always had to navigate a hyphenated identity. She identified as a lesbian, a painter, a poet, and a musician, composing songs and playing piano and guitar. Her mother was Panamanian and her father Filipino. Although she was already a performing musician as a teen, she was equally engaged with fine art, earning an MFA in 1962. From that point forward she alternated between her music and art career.
In 1966 she had a surprise hit song with “Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog.” Then, after a European tour and a five-year relationship with singer Dusty Springfield, she returned to her native California, where she lived a low-key life, dividing her time between teaching, painting, and performing music.
For the most part, Tanega’s energetic sherbet colors are reminiscent of artwork by other celebrities who maintained a visual art side practice, for instance, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Henry Miller. In such cases, it’s hard not to read autobiography into every single brushstroke. Tanega’s approach to mark-making comes across as stream of consciousness, as if she’s engaged in a conversation with herself, not the outside world, or art history, for that matter. A sense of eavesdropping in on her self-talk pervades this show, and is one reason the show is worth seeing.
The most revealing work is her oil painting “Hydrochlorothizade” (2005–6), named for a drug that treats fluid retention and bloating. It depicts a vibrant, multicolored head that seems to be cracking wide open. The top of the head is a swirl of psychedelic colors and shapes, yet the eyes are blank.
When looking at the abstract landscapes that comprise the other half of the exhibition, it seems clear that Tanega is using landscape as a metaphor for the mind. Although they contain forms that read like mountains or hills, there are no landmarks, trees, buildings, animals, or people. In the absence of such known things, paintings like “Undulation” (2004–5), “Internal Landscape” (1997), “Beyond the Dumping Ground” (2004) all imply a world of personal feeling and reflections, made perhaps more for herself than for her audience.