Ascension Day Reviewed by Ted Keer

Newberry, "Ascension Day", oil on linen, 86 x 70 inches, private collection.
Newberry, “Ascension Day”, oil on linen, 86 x 70 inches, private collection.

Note: Ted Keer pass away last month, he had a wonderful curious mind, and it was an honor that he wrote something about a few of my works including the review below:

Michael Newberry’s “Ascension Day” is one of my favorite of his non-traditional paintings. I believe that the essence of my enjoyment is the fully worked out form which simultaneously presents both symmetry and asymmetry, beauty and tension, action and self-centeredness.

When I visited his studio, Michael and I discussed his axiomatic concepts of figurative painting which he designates as form, space and light. I don’t wish to comment at length on his theory, but those who wish to know what he has to say should visit his website and read his statements. I did not discuss this specific painting with Michael, and have intentionally not sought his remarks on it, so that I might comment without bias.

All living organisms exhibit body forms suitable to their way of life. Sessile forms such as plants, fungi and coral are usually modular and fractal in their design. Since these vegetative organisms do not move actively through their environments, but rather grow toward their resources, they are composed not of a determinate growth form as are such active animals as horses, butterflies and boas, but as indeterminate fractal forms with repeating modules that sprout and spread – such as the shoots and runners of kelp; the branches, stalks and roots of rose bushes; or the chambers and plumbing of sponges. Since these vegetative life-forms do not move, they do not need to have fusiform or streamlined and symmetrical bodies which can act in co-ordinated animated behaviors. Rather, they add on new modules, new branches or buds as the resources and seasons permit. Unable to move actively, vegetative organisms grow into opportunities. If a gap opens up in the canopy, a dwarfed tree or a tiny coral or a runner of ivy may suddenly go into a growth spurt aimed at filling area rather than moving through space to some further destination.

Mobile animals, however (and also seeds) normally have set and symmetrical body shapes which follow a determinate developmental plan toward a mature shape. They may perhaps grow some in girth, but do not sprout side braches which will make them more cumbersome and less co-ordinated in their movements. Animals and seeds are about motion. They are about getting to the resources and away from the threats. Some animals and many seeds are radially symmetrical like sunflowers and starfish. These organisms are usually not worried about motion in more than one direction. But most animals, including man, are bilaterally symmetrical with a head-to-tail axis and mirror image left and right hand sides. The body axis parallels the usual direction of motion, and the mirror-image right and left halves allow precisely choreographed motions such as flapping flight and galloping runs. One doesn’t normally see such non-bilateral organisms like trees or bread molds running down the street. The image of their tangled branches loping gracefully is an absurdity reserved for fantasy and horror movies, as is appropriate, given the monstrous image that such an alien concept evokes.

The bilateral human form is, of course special, given our intimate concern with all things human. And symmetry of form in humans is not only practical for such things as motion, it is also a sign of good health and genetic endowment, and thus of sexual attractiveness. Humps and mangled limbs and twisted faces are not, all other things being equal, particularly appealing. Yet even in humans, perfect symmetry is neither found nor desirable. Humans exhibit handedness, or what chemists and biologists express using the Greek term, chirality. Chirality is the possession of a right or left handed twist. In chemistry, slightly complicated molecules with what would otherwise be exactly the same shape except for being mirror images of each other can have very different properties. Some right or left handed versions of substances smell different or can or cannot be digested, and many medically active chemicals like thalidomide are benign in one form and toxic in another.

Humans are a bit more complicated than molecules. But we show handedness in our internal organs (liver on one side, heart on the other) and, importantly, in our brain structure. True ambidextry is a very rare phenomenon, and while most people are right handed for manual tasks, almost all those who aren’t right handed show a strong left handed preference. The reasons for hand and brain chirality in humans are still being worked out. But two strongly supported theories regarding handedness are that it allows for mental and physical specialization. One argument obvious to the layman is that by focusing on a dominant hand for tool use (and in our civilization, writing) we do not need to waste twice the time practicing and developing the neural circuitry which allows the exquisitely fine-tuned motions of the hand and digits that allow us to write and carve, paint and sew, pitch a ball and pluck a guitar. Given that even apes show a dominant hand, it is likely that the ability to throw rocks with accuracy was one of the earliest benefits to our ancestors of chirality.

Popularized for decades in such titles as Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain, it has long been known that the right and left hemispheres of the brain are in some ways radically different. While a stroke on one side of the brain will leave a patient profoundly aphasic but still conscious of emotions and body states, a stroke in an identical location on the other side will leave language intact, but destroy body-awareness or the ability to feel or to make value-judgments. The work of neuropsychologist Antonio Damasio, who fully disavows the brain/body, value/reason, and mind/brain dichotomies has shown that cerebral handedness is fundamental to our natures as thinking, feeling and speaking rational agents. The late Julian Jaynes, in his Origin of Consciousness, argues that modern self-conscious deliberation is the product of cultural innovations of late antiquity. Jaynes argued that cultural crises caused men who used to listen to their own thoughts as if they were the voices of gods to develop a theory of mind. Humans literally learned that the voices they heard in their heads were not spirits, but the thoughts of the self. According to Jaynes’ theory, the neurophysiological presence of a bicameral mind allows humans literally to think hemisphere-to-hemisphere within the brain. While the exact anatomical and psycho-epistemological details are yet to be worked out, it is uncontested that cerebral chirality, “brain-handedness,” is central to our human natures as speaking, thinking, and valuing rational agents.

What does this have to do with Newberry’s “Ascension Day”? Newberry’s chiral figure expresses concretely the human being as a self-made incarnation of spirit.

Note the perfect symmetry of Newberry’s subject, yet her volitional and actively asymmetrical pose as she ascends through an abstracted space. His subject is not a limp body, passively lifted through the heavens by an external force. She is a fully actualized, self-directed and self-aware heroine existing in her own mental space, in effect, her own private heaven. If we note the arch of her back, and the presentation of her breasts, and her freely flowing hair we cannot escape the raw sexuality of the image. It is not a passive sexuality. Her legs are not spread for a dominant partner, they are scissored as if she has just leapt from a precipice. Yet given the bright canvas from which her feet are launched and the glow above her toward which she is ascends there is no sense of falling, but only of rising. By being neither parallel or limp, her legs show us that she is moving upward of her own will, and under her own intentional control.

Notice that her arms and hands are also in a natural yet asymmetrically twisted chiral pose, again indicating neither passivity nor fear but full and conscious intention. She neither clutches for support nor leans to support herself but is in an open embrace to that towards which she moves. Each finger is fully individuated, under full control. This is not the strained, self-conscious control of someone who is attempting to master herself, but the easy control of a helmsman steering her own familiar vessel. Her mouth is open, her neck extended, every muscle in her body is taut, not as in a death struggle, but as in a dance.

Complimenting the figure, the composition of this painting is in one way abstract, in that while she is a fully three-dimensional, our heroine is not presented in relation to any outside object. This is not a flaw, however, but a dramatic effect. It forces us to view her in relation to nothing but her most precious possession, her self. If less skillfully rendered in this abstract space her form might have appeared flat. But if one imagines that the plane of the canvass bisects her midline, the dramatic lighting of her left hand and the opacity of her right hand show that neither hand is in the plane of her torso. Indeed, her left hand is so vivid that it seems to include us in her embrace. In one sense she is entirely private, within the world of her own spirit, oblivious to our presence, yet in another sense she embraces us intimately. Another dramatic effect which heightens the dynamic of this picture is the fact that her center of gravity does not lie stable, but serves as a point about which she might pivot with the slightest touch. Her position is inherently unstable, and hence necessarily in motion. We see her as fully solid, and can imagine rotating her in any dimension, but we cannot imagine that any other position but this one is the right one.

“Ascension Day” is an incredible work in theme and presentation. With no backdrop except herself, Newberry’s subject is not just a body in space, but a soul in mind. Neither passive nor struggling, she is taut yet at ease. She is entirely alone, yet eerily intimate. One might have been tempted to entitle the painting Psyche, or even in Hebrew, Ruach, Spirit. Yet there is no disembodiment. Rather, as her left hand reaches for us, slightly askew, her fully incarnated self twists open like a rose in bloom.

Ted Keer

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