John Newsom’s Sentient Abstractions: Portraits – – – Not Pets!

The interior of Marc Struas Gallery with works by John Newsom
The interior of Marc Straus Gallery with works by John Newsom
John Newsom makes ART that can pounce and kill
John Newsom makes ART that can pounce and kill

Magnificent oil paintings sprawling over two-floors of pure white walls enthrall passersby and aficionados, alike. Newsom is known as a well-established sensual abstractionist and, at the opening, half of John Newsom’s mesmerizing collection had already been sold.

Increasingly tactile, you enter the exuberantly colored gallery, only to be enthralled by increasingly chiaroscuro mind sweeping displays of exotic animals. Softness is imbued with color, while geometry and texture entrance. Just take a look at his dance:

ARTE F– USE: WHY DO YOU PAINT ANIMALS, AND WHY SO BIG? 

John Newsom: The animals, and all of the other forms of nature in my work, developed very gradually over time. Each subject in the paintings are painted either to their scale found in nature, or larger. The goal of the work is to generate a feeling of enhancing life without ever over-exaggerating it. The animals in my work read and function ultimately as formal abstractions. In this current body of work there is more of a focus on portraiture within an expanded field.

AF: …AND ON THE MERGING OF CONTRADICTORY ELEMENTS? 

JN: I also incorporate patterning of elemental geometric shapes within the backgrounds. These geometric forms function as architectural structure within the picture plane, as well as respites for the eye within the explosion of gestural painting found all-over in the field of the surface. By enlarging the form and the space of the paintings, the atmosphere becomes more enveloping. This I believe gives the viewer a more total and
physical experience, not so dissimilar to some of the ideas of the Abstract Expressionists.

John Newsom goes Wild at Marc Straus
John Newsom goes Wild at Marc Straus
John Newsom Installation View #1 at Marc Straus
John Newsom Installation View #1 at Marc Straus

AF: HOW DO YOU PLAN AND INITIATE EACH PIECE? 

JN: All of the paintings are 100% oil paint on canvas. I don’t cut my paint with mediums or fillers. Each painting is its own journey, most often requiring months to years to complete a single piece. I work on three to five paintings simultaneously. My process is both physically and mentally demanding due to the nature of how the surface structure is painted and the drying time involved with each layer.

AF: WHAT ARE YOUR PAINTERLY INSTRUMENTS?

JN: The tools I use range from industrial mops, to brick laying spatulas, to all sorts of brushes mainly utilitarian grade China brushes. Over the years I have found that the simplest everyday ‘workman’ based tools help create the most direct result. I like the formal presentation of the paintings to be very direct. Using 10-grade cotton duct canvas, everyday utilitarian tools, Chinese bristle brushes, and turpentine – makes the work more modest and approachable. This helps encourage and build confidence in the viewer when using such extravagant and exotic iconography.

AF: …AND THE PAINT YOU — USE?   

JN: The paint I use is very expensive and of the highest grade. It’s obviously important to use the very best paint possible. Van Gogh used the very best paint, that’s why the colors in his pictures have held up so well over time. Look at any one of those paintings and you will see. I aim for that type of lasting quality as well.

AF: WHAT IS YOUR MOTIVATION? HAVE YOU WITNESSED AND EXPLORED THESE SPECIMENS IN THEIR NATIVE HABITATS? 

JN: My work really isn’t about the animals, or the plants, or the birds, etc. It’s ultimately about the paint. The animals are armatures to hang the paint on.

The interior of Marc Struas Gallery with works by John Newsom
The interior of Marc Struas Gallery with works by John Newsom

AF: WHAT PAINTERS INSPIRE YOUR STROKE?   

JN:  I admire Bacon, Soutine, Van Gogh, Malevich, Beckmann, Guston, Baselitz. For today – painters such as Mark Grotjahn, Andre Butzer, Neo Rauch and even Thomas Houseago understand the enormity of the medium, and allow it to become a subject of one’s individual and personalized iconography. I do like the populist approachability of my subject matter though.

Newsom looks through eyes of the predator
Newsom looks through eyes of the predator

AF: HOW DO YOU PERCIEVE VIEWERS’ RELATIONS TO YOUR WORK?   

JN: Anyone in the world has access to the paintings without having to learn some conceptual ‘code’ to read the work. I believe all great paintings have this quality; otherwise they remain conceptual fodder. I don’t use studio assistants to paint my work. My own hands make every mark. How could it be any other way? Al Pacino doesn’t hire other actors to act out his roles, etc. So the viewer has a richer and more rewarding study of the work, of the surface, of the paint, touch, brushwork, impasto, and so on. We live in a commercial age where artists are pressured to produce, but I maintain belief in the individual touch.

Striving to capture LIFE, the softness and beauty with which Newsom paints, exhibits the grace of an eagle—a poet. Mesmerizing and serene, you feel the fear, contentment, concern or rage in the eyes of butterfly, exotic bird, or tiger. You are invited to enter his or her wildlife glare, with each stare. Neither driven to complexity, nor absorbed into melancholy, everyone should invest—if not a wall but a moment—in sentience. Aristotle says “…something’s being sentient entails its being animate.” To him, “Animals are differentiated from other living things by sentience, desire, and the ability to move themselves about.” People buy pets—they domesticate, go to vets and act as maids to perpetuate a companionship endued ever so cleanly—by these tactile interventions.

“Living things are characterized by growth, reproduction, and nutrition; and in order to be an animal one must be a living thing.”

A major survey exhibition of Newsom’s work is also currently on display at Mana Contemporary 888 Newark Avenue, Jersey City, NJ and runs through April 24th. A forthcoming hardcover monograph on Newsom’s work will be available in March, with text by The Nation’s art critic Barry Schwabsky. For further information please visitwww.marcstraus.com and www.manacontemporary.com

On View: Exhibition: February 18 – March 22, 2015
Gallery Hours: Tuesday – Saturday (11 am to 6 pm)
Marc Straus Gallery. 299 Grand Street, New York NY 10002

Article & Interview by: Farrah Sarafa
Photography by: Bill Orcutt Photography

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