The aria in the background is from Biset’s The Pearl Fishers sung by Tino Rossi. It is one of the songs I put together of Haunting Songs and Arias on google music. I listened a lot to it while painting this.
Decades ago at 2:30 a.m. on a back street in La Jolla, I was arrested driving my mom’s ’68 Firebird 400 convertible. I had our tiny mutts Nikki and Dinky as passengers. I was 12 years old. The feeling of driving was incredibly delicious. Riding home in the back of the cop car, I asked the two burly policemen what I did wrong. I obviously didn’t want to make that mistake again. They looked at each other, not sure they should educate me on the rules of the road. It turned out I was driving with the high beams on. After some prodding, they kindly explained what and how they worked.
My feeling for art is a lot like that adventure–it is hot, daring, and a beautiful experience. I wouldn’t trade that feeling for anything, including life and love. I didn’t have the words to answer people who tried to steer me towards business or a tennis career–it wasn’t going to happen.
In my late teens, I was very lucky to travel to New York and Europe, where I took the opportunity to visit art museums. Every time I walked into a room filled with life-sized ancient Greek sculptures, I had the same emotional experience: an overwhelming feeling of peace and that everything was right with the world. That experience was something I could never feel for the visual rantings of suicidal, CIA-sponsored abstract expressionist
I’ve never wanted to live back in time, and I wasn’t going to play the postmodernist game, so the only place for me and my art was the future.
The toughest, most ruthless, and most demanding thing to do in art is to make something noble and beautiful. Any blemish of color or skewed perspective or proportion screws one’s vision. (Artists, daunted by the challenge, and lacking skill and fortitude, give up, and they trade their best visions for ugliness and abstraction–a horrific choice). Holding onto great visions and simultaneously growing and trying new things as a totality is a great accomplishment, and yet, the art itself looks like the simplest and most natural thing in the world.
This brings me to Venus of the Planets. She is the result of all the hard work, adventure, the lovely model Georgie Leahy, my journey to Washington, D.C., Star Trek NG, and bridging the feeling of ancient Greece with our future decades from now–and a result of joy riding.
Venus started life in the swirling currents of rage, envy, hopelessness, promises, and unchosen obligations. She wasn’t meant for life as it was known on planet Earth. She had within her, as all humanoids have, a minuscule fragment of DNA, so tiny it was, and is still, unknown to most of humankind, yet this spec of stuff can ignite and light a universe. It is called the Sublime gene. Venus had no words for it, only a recognition that it was within her. Humans had no time to notice such an insignificant thing, they were too busy fighting against or running away from each other’s hammers. Venus wasn’t immune from the ravishes of anger and fear, until one day she noticed that they were cords that bound humans together in security and endless conflict. She wondered: what happens when you cut the cords? She did just that and an amazing thing happened, she became free. Free to let go, free to be beautiful, free to let the sublime gene grow, expand, and ignite. Her inner light burned so brightly it reached the farthest planets of our Universe, and she made her home there. If you look deep enough within and without you will see her there in her home of flowing arches and glass windows with vistas of Jupiter and her moons Callisto, Io, and Ganymede.
My show Intimacy at the White Cloud Gallery, Washington, D.C. Nov 3 – Dec 14, 2017
Last year I was painting life-sized nudes, mostly monochromatic, in my Idyllwild cabin with my dog Frida for company. It was like living in a dream, get up in the morning, enjoy my coffee, and then enter into the universe of art. As I painted, I would play music in the background, listening to complete sets of Beethoven’s Symphonies and Handel’s Oratorios, or binge on the complete series of Star Trek Next Generation and Voyager. I was exploring new and challenging ways to express love, myth, and beauty on the canvas. One challenge was how to paint an explicit lovers’ embrace in order to capture their primary feeling of love. Another challenge was creating the deepest space I have ever done. In creating this body of work, I felt my prayers to contribute to a better world being realized.
The art universe, for me, is not the world of exhibitions, collectors, and recognition. Rather, it is about learning from my favorite buddies from art history and then going my way; making art an issue between me and god (nature). Art cleanses away all the bullshit of news, postmodernism, politics, Hollywood drama–I think this is one of the appeals of the hermit life, no?
Show in the Calendar
It was almost the ideal art existence. As I finished the paintings and saw that they were forming a coherent whole, I experienced a pull to display them, which runs counter to the solitary life of painting. I was happy, content, and financially okay. Why mess that up? Why throw a wrench of a solo show into the works? I wasn’t sure that I wanted to put time and money into a show that I could use instead for another two or three future paintings. I wondered about the expression that a pianist freezes when playing for an audience but is good alone. And I wondered about the ultimate art cycle from creation to viewers witnessing the work in real life.
The clincher was that I was invited to show in Washington, D.C. by my friend, artist, and gallery owner Miguel Perez Lem at his beautiful White Cloud Gallery. He has a great respect for my work, and he was more than willing to show life-sized nudes.
My friend and collector, Geir Friis, flew out to nearby Palm Springs to accompany Frida and me as we hauled the paintings across the U.S. He is a bit of an expert in road travels and mechanics, and he gave truth to the saying “prepare for the worst and hope for the best.” (Zero issues came up with the car there and back). I picked up the U-Haul trailer in a rural area straight out of a Steinbeck novel. I drove by the pick-up location twice not believing the app directions. But right it was, and our journey started at the Diamond Valley Market.
Just picked up the U-Haul trailer at the Diamond Valley Market, in Riverside County in California.
We packed the paintings in about an hour. No fuss.
So kind, Conrad Allen, offered his Texas cabin for a stop.
Chattanooga – The Seasons
The most inspiring stop along the way to Washington, D.C. was in Chattanooga at the entrance to the bridge spanning the Tennessee River. This illustrious spot is the location of my friend Daud Ahkrive’s The Seasons, four larger-than-life female sculptures. Not only did Daud create beautiful and expressive works, but he managed to get those humanistic semi-nudes placed prominently in a bible belt city. The inspiring message was that anything is possible but it takes talent, cleverness, and grit.
Geir Friis with One of Daud Ahkrive’s Seasons, Chattanooga.
Fear doesn’t play much of role in my life, and I have rarely felt it whether living alone in Greece or Holland, or facing emergency room test results, but faced with indifference towards my art puts me out of sorts. I feel disappointed with that segment of humanity. And it makes me wonder what is the point of sharing art. Where is the magic pill that transmits my soul to theirs? There is the expression, “build it and they will come.” What if no one comes? Perhaps I fear apathy, but less about people not liking my art, and more of what a horrible decision it would be not to continue making art.
Ha! That is the bane of most artists I know. But like my sister, Janny, always told me, even before Nike existed, “just do it!”
Arriving outside the Gallery in D.C. with Geir, Katie (the painting), and Miguel. After 3,000 miles, some rural dirt roads, and mountain curves, they arrived perfectly.
The art in the trailer arrived perfectly–without so much as a half-inch of settling. Hanging the show with Miguel was a pleasure. All of his placement choices were excellent. And before you know it the opening began and lovely people showed up. A subliminal but noticeable result occurred and recurred on later days: when I was introduced as the artist, most people lit up, conveyed their respects, and opened up about their feelings about the art and themselves without any self-consciousness. It was as if they took the magic pill and trusted me to understand them. It reminded me a little of my experience being rushed to the hospital. I came away with so much respect for the 40 to 50 health professionals who interacted with me. Both experiences restored my faith in humanity.
Opening, Luxman Nathan from L.A. in the foreground.
With Marilyn Moore, my beloved copy editor.
With Thomas C. McCollum III, author of Tainted Blood and Uncle Norm.
It was an honor to have the show reviewed in The Washington Post print and online editions by Mark Jenkins, who said about Icarus, ” … his depiction of Icarus, included in White Cloud Gallery’s “Intimacy,” is as contemporary as traditional. Posed serenely in midair, naked and wingless, the boy might be rising rather than falling. The emphasis is on physical beauty, not the original fable’s cautionary moral.”
Journey Home – Pastel Landscapes
One of the 40+ pastels on the trip home.
Before I had time to worry about the show’s traction, I was back on the road home and drawing pastel landscapes and photo referencing the beautiful land and skyscapes along the way. I hadn’t been doing pastels for some years, and it was a pleasure to revisit the medium with my newly updated knowledge of depth and light. My favorite place to draw was New Mexico. You can view an album of over 40 of those landscapes here:
Some are already in private collections, and the rest are studio inventory.
Frida (the Champ) getting a water break in Arizona.
While driving I had a lot of time to think about friends, art, new projects, and the sublime. With these magnificent vistas I was contemplating landscapes as backgrounds for futuristic paintings. Especially the natural and beautiful colors. Jules Verne visuals of sea creatures and planets kept popping into my head. I had never done science fiction, and I wondered, “could I make it feel real as if we were there on the spot?” The answer was definitely “yes!” So, I started planning for the next series of big works.
On the way during breaks I was participating on a social media thread about Kant’s aesthetics, accompanying my opinions with Kant quotes and postmodern examples. I have published and lectured in the past on his aesthetics, yet I was brutally accused by a respected literary scholar and friend of being a “criminal,” and “ridiculous,” for my claim that Kant’s definition (his specifically) of the sublime established the foundations for postmodern art. The conversation rekindled my interest in further inquiry into the role of the sublime in art.
I looked again into the history of the aesthetic definitions of the sublime but couldn’t find any close to my intuitive understanding of it nor to the common use dictionary definition. In a nutshell, the sublime historically turns on experiencing displeasure. Ever since I was 13, I wanted to paint states of elation, meaningfulness, nobility, fulfillment, and I wanted to paint light. There is nothing grotesque, shocking, or displeasing with that. Something was wrong with the art worldview of the sublime. So after decades of practicing art and theory I decided to form my own definition:
The experience of the sublime is to be looked for in art. Art integrates senses, emotions, and thought. The sublime in art elevates our sensory experience, taps and heightens our emotional potential, and furthers our knowledge. The sublime in art can also give us a moral, a stance towards living. At its best, the sublime in art inspires awe in our human potential and gives us a path to evolve as a whole being and as a species.
One interesting consequence of my solidifying view on the sublime in art is that I became more empathetic to collectors and other artists. Before, when I would see their art or discuss art with them I would frown and think “that art is not me,” and become frustrated. Now with more clarity about my work and motivations I enjoy celebrating the differences with other artists.
Arriving home to exquisitely beautiful Idyllwild, I reviewed the whole of the journey and asked if it was worth it. It is still a little too fresh to know with certainty, but I do know that because of the recognition of friends and strangers, I feel freer and clearer. And perhaps without going on this American journey the new understanding and new visions would have not come about.
Arriving home under the gorgeous Tahquitz Rock.
At the end of one journey is the beginning of a new one. Here is a work in progress of Venus of the Planets, my first science fiction work, oil on linen, 48 x 64 inches.
Grateful, oil on canvas, 24 x 20 inches.
Michael Newberry is Artist-in-Residence at The Atlas Society. He has exhibited in New York, Los Angeles, Athens, and Rome. Follow him on Instagram at @artnewberry.
Just published, available in Coffee Table Book and Kindle formats.
From the inside jacket cover:
Idyllwild Paintings is a journey from the indifferent art scene of Downtown L.A. to the granite mountains of Idyllwild. In danger of losing the meaning of being an artist, Michael Newberry sought a place to explore depth, death, love, and light. Inside are over 45 paintings of narrative, abstract realism, and larger than life-sized portraits.
Through new mentors he was introduced to evolutionary theories, sandwich techniques, and to his dog Frida. An abundance of studio time enabled him to explore painting techniques, color theory, and pushing the boundaries of two-dimensional space. He also explored the fragile inner workings of love themes and symbolism.
Throughout his experience the nurturing environment of Idyllwild’s people served to make what could have been a lonely life, one filled with love and visibility.
Note: Idyllwild Paintings was a labor of love, it is my pleasure to offer no mark up on the coffee table book.
Idyllwild is a mythic place, if I were religious, I would say it one of God’s gardens. Indeed, if you were to wander the remote paths, you might actually come across a forest nymph interacting with nature. This year I made friends with Katie Bolin and her mate Ivan Ellirand, starting with a life-size painting of her pregnant and nude. This painting, Winter, is the follow-up and Ivan kindly granted me use one of his photos as a reference.
While painting it, I imagined it being one in a series of the four seasons. What do you think? Can you see it?
Throughout the day I see rabbits and squirrels scurrying and birds bounding and flying about. For fun, I embedded two birds and one rabbit in this painting, they are pretty well camouflaged — I doubt you find all three. Let me know if you do!
Flying high and higher, experiencing everything, yet instead of burning and crashing, as the legend tells us, he gains love and wisdom and gently comes home.
Icarus Landing was completed in 2001 in my beautiful Turkish home/studio in Rhodes, Greece. There is a saying about staying at a friends home, leave it better than when you arrived. Art is a little like that too. If you borrow from history, don’t just copy but add to it and hopefully making something better out of it.
Earlier today I signed off on the third tattoo painting. The series was a fascinating excursion in which I contemplated how we sometimes become the artwork. I have always thought that was true in a metaphorical way, in the sense that when we are young, we often form our characters, unwittingly, by the influence of movies, literature, songs, paintings, or by sculptures. With tattoos it is the reverse, it is the person that becomes the canvas. They literally become the artwork.
The process of painting them was difficult and fun. It is like working a jigsaw puzzle in 3d, with each piece curved to fit the human form, and each piece occupying its unique spot in space.
The Tats Series is part of an ongoing project of abstract, realistic paintings destined for The White Cloud Gallery in Washington D.C. this fall.
First published by The Atlas Society.
One of the more poetic events in The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand is when the protagonist, Howard Roark comes to watch Dominique posing naked for Mallory’s marble sculpture. The sculpture is of the human spirit destined for the Stoddard Temple. The three of them experience a perfect synergy of admiration, creativity, and beauty.
Further plot events see the destruction of the Stoddard Temple, one of the many painful obstacles Roark needs to overcome to continue his unique and innovative vision of architecture.
Stills from Song of Songs starring Marlene Dietrich and Brian Aherne
In a way, we can look at art history and see some patterns similar to The Fountainhead that include the beautiful nude, innovations, and the power of the creative artist.
Figure the Future
By Michael Newberry
Presented by The Atlas Society, 2008
Michael Newberry reflects on how the nude supports the best within us and shows that it has been present at the conception and implementation: of democracy; of systematic philosophy; and of art history.
0:17 Introduction by Robert Bidinotto
2:33 The Nude as the Personification of the Individual
The Status of Clothed Figures
Ramasus, Queen Elizabeth 1, Ingres, Millet, Whistler, Wyeth, Pearlstein, and Richter.