Sunday, December 7, 2008

The World is My Mentor

To relax this is what I do: I sit down at the computer pretending to be the curator of the world's largest and most important museum of contemporary art. I am the ultimate arbiter of fine art, the highest court, the judge of judges: my word is final.

I execute an image search, sometimes for something specific ("sunflowers acrylic"), sometimes not ("oil on panel"). What I want are pictures to look at, images of paintings, mostly of artists unknown--at least to me. Good, that's how I like it.

With each search dozens, hundred of images confront me. With lightning speed scan through them, dismissing most as too dull, too clichéd, too poorly executed, too glib, to earnest, too silly, too harsh, too ugly, too insipid. Nothing is easier to dismiss than a painting. It takes so little effort to look at one, and even less effort not to look. Ninety-nine percent of what I see I dismiss. How nice to be the curator and not the curated!

The other day (or evening) I came across the painting above. I had no idea who the artist was, or even if the artist was living. It might have been the work of some amateur, for all I knew, or even that of a child—but I very much doubted it. You see, I have an excellent eye: for what it's worth, and if I say so myself, I think I have one of the best eyes. I know good work when I see it, and—except when applied to my own work—I seldom doubt my judgement.

Do you find these statements conceited? You shouldn't. When someone merely states facts, they shouldn't be called immodest.

When an image strikes me I do two things: first, I download it to my computer, to be stored in a folder where I've collected other favored images. Next, I look up the artist in the hope of finding other pleasing images and, with luck, of learning more about him or her.

In the case of the above painting, the artists turned out to be one Stephen Newton, a painter living and working in England who is also a writer and professor, presently a visiting lecturer at the University of Northumbria in Newcastle, England.

Sometimes an artist's work moves me so I must tell them. I did so with Mr. Newton. I send him the following simple email:

Dear Mr. Newton,

I was trolling for good art online (a form of relaxation and inspiration) and came upon your good work. I just wanted to say how much I like your work, the honest simplicity of the paintings especially. For me the challenge of painting is to arrive at solutions that are honest, simple, sincere—and yet not simplistic, and that invite the viewer both into subject and surface. Your “solutions,” I think, are efficient and elegant.


A few hourslater Mr. Newton replied:

How kind of you - and in a way apt, as I am just making my way to a PV of my latest show. Keep in touch,



Having just finished my ocean liner painting (see below) I could not resist. I emailed back:

May I send you one painting of mine? Just one? I would love to have you see it.


"Yes," Mr. Newton replied promptly, "please do—but I tend to be honest in my opinion!"

I wasn't afraid; in fact I was thrilled to know that I would get this man's honest opinion. To be taken that seriously by a real artist—not by some gallery owner or other self-appointed "expert," but of someone who really knows a thing or two about art—as Mr. Newton clearly does, judging both from his own work and from his writings about art, some of which I had meanwhile read. I wrote back that he should be as honest as possible, and to take his time; I was not in a hurry. Indeed, he did not write back until the following day.

Dear Peter,

Having 'slept' on your work I can make one or two c omments. Bear in mind that I am responding to the painting exclusively - I do not know you, what age you are - or background. Usually in a tutorial situation the work can be put in a context: what are you trying to achieve and how I could help you to do it, what artists you admire or have drawn upon. For example if you said you liked Alfred Wallis or Paul Klee for instance, then I would understand why your design is rigidly structured and compartmentalised. Indeed, the word 'design' was to the forefront when looking at your work. If I had just seen the image without any contact from you at all, I would have assumed it was a design of some sort - painted of course, but still a design. It looks like a design for a wall mural, or printed textile, card even, or maybe a contemporary stained glass window depicting a modern Noah's Ark. Bear in mind that acrylic paint compounds this effect, being very plastic, unremitting and hard.

I'm not sure why the idea of Noah's Ark kept coming into my mind. From one perspective it looks like a medieval image of Noah's Ark - the black stars against a thick blue sky seem very icon-like. It's interesting that you say that you have had a hiatus in your painting (two years?). It's as if you have constructed a personal liner - or ark, which you have packed with your own motifs or artistic forms: shapes, lines, dots, circles etc., which are sailing off with you to a new beginning, or new start in20painting?

Of course it is a powerful and striking image, difficult to categorise because it is not really primitive or faux-naif, or naive or childlike. The image is very tightly and rigidly gripped suggesting you are pretty determined in what you do. But it is not really painterly and elements in the ocean seem to suggest you are searching for a licence to be free and painterly. When your motifs disembark maybe they will be set free to serve you in the future. Clearly I can understand much better the comments you made on my work—for I think that they could equally be said of your own.



My response to this was pure delight—and I wasted no time telling him so:

Dear Stephen,

I can’t tell you how happy and even thrilled your response to my painting has made me—though having read some of your writing I am not the least bit surprised by it’s astuteness and sensitivity. We do have things in common. My own compact critique of my work as a painter over the past few years is this: the painter mano-a-mano with the illustrator, with the illustrator, alas, always winning.

You mentioned A. Wallis and Klee as influences. Spot-on. I have a book of Wallis’ work on the shelf here next to me, and of his compatriot in St. Ives, a Mr. Crane. And next to that book one of Ben Nicholson’s work—Nicholson who was himself (as you know) influenced20and inspired by these two “primitives.” Other painters I’d add to my favorites/influences: Debuffet, Rouault. I love both deeply. But then I am also very interested in so-called folk or naïve art, in work that is pure-hearted, as opposed to so much so-called “fine-art” (with quotation marks duly noted)—the sort of art that (alas) curators always favor over work that is more authentic, more sincere. Work that tries to be profound is never so. Given a choice between forced “profundity” (another word that more often than not should be straight-jacketed by quotation marks) and no profundity at all (Wallis) I’ll take the latter anyday.

Funny, too, that you should mention Noah’s ark; another friend made the same comment about the painting, though there are no overt references to the ark, and though I had no such intention (my intention, for what it’s worth, aside from considerations of color, design, texture, pleasing effects of that sort) was the painted equivalent of a golden retriever running up to and jumping on your lap, to capture a sense of innocent and even ignorant glee. Why must or should paintings be sober? Why does so much “serious” art lack even a trace of charm or wit?

We both have dealt with icons in our work. For me the totemic objects have been ocean liners (specifically the Titanic and Queen Mary), the Empire State Building, sunflowers, the Pantheon, and the blue bridge spanning the Spuyten Duyvi l to link the Bronx (where I live) with Manhattan. But practically any subject—a typewriter, a portrait—can be given this iconic treatment, as you do with your upholstered chairs and doors. (You’ve seen Charlotte Salomon’s gauaches? Your work reminds me of hers).

I adore symmetry; I have no interest whatsoever in the effects of natural light, or in so-called linear perspective (which, anyway, is curved). Your paintings hold pretty much all the things I value in painting; and the most important: that the technique of a painting conveys a sense of joy in its own making, that it makes you want to paint. I used to admire paintings that look as if they took all kinds of time and effort (Church’s Niagara Falls!); now I pass them by in favor of paintings that look as though they were arrived at easily, simply, with minimal effort. But then I keep looking until I’m assured that looks deceive...

Yes—I am “searching for license to be free and painterly.” In works like yours I find it. Now to put it to work.

Thank you so much for this. I will treasure it. I hope your show is a great success and that we keep in touch.



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