The Cult of Oblivion: CIA, Abstract Expressionists, and Kant

da Vinci, study of hands

Evolution and the Undermining of Art

From the cave paintings of the Horses Heads to figurative art today, visual art is about perception and subject. We artists, and our ancient ancestors, look at the world around us, focus on important aspects of it, digest it, then, in acts of passion express our view of humanity. Visual art is inextricably linked to human evolution; its best examples further our potential as human beings. Visual art refines our perceptions, explores our emotional potentials, and expands our minds. But for the last century art has been under attack.

In the mid-20th century these three forces––Kant’s philosophy, abstract expressionists, and the CIA––congealed ostensibly to champion freedom and originality, instead accomplished an undermining of art and consequently humanity. The connections and machinations are so complicated and obtuse it is hard to take them seriously, but it does make a difference in understanding them, at least in the sense of whether or not our culture evolves.

Progress is Not Automatic

There are a few things that are embedded in our DNA, like sex and consciousness, but art is one of the most powerful. It has been said that the human species doesn’t have instincts—that we have to make choices, make mistakes, and figure out future directions. We can implode, exploit wars, exterminate populations, and commit suicide. There are no guarantees that philosophers, experts, government institutions, and artists have it right. And we are only a few nuclear explosions away from eradication. It is a sobering obligation that we must choose and possibly be tragically wrong and sometimes be wonderfully right. 

da Vinci, study of hands

Da Vinci, Study of Hands c. 1474, in silverpoint on prepared paper heightened with white (chalk?).

Visual Science and Heart

This sketch by da Vinci represents everything great about humanity and art: skill, discovery, knowledge, light and shadow, science, empathy, humanism, beauty, and effortlessness. An interesting thing is that this work uplifts us and can inspire our farthest reaching aspirations whether for science or heart or both. Da Vinci’s near-contemporary, Vasari, wrote about him: 

“Leonardo’s disposition was so lovable that he commanded everyone’s affection… his magnificent presence brought comfort to the most troubled soul; he was so persuasive that he could bend other people to his will. … He was so generous that he fed all his friends, rich or poor… Through his birth Florence received a very great gift, and through his death it sustained an incalculable loss… an artist of outstanding physical beauty who displayed infinite grace in everything he did and who cultivated his genius so brilliantly that all problems he studied were solved with ease.”

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Want to Know What Your Future Is? Examine the Art You Like and the Art of Your Time

Newberry, Denouement, 1987, oil on linen, 54x78"

That is where you are heading. Very few people take advantage of the fact that their future is literally right in front of them. The future awaiting you is to be seen in the art you engage with. Will I have beauty in my life? Am I doomed to depression? Will justice prevail? Will I be happy? Will I be cut up by a chainsaw? Will I throw myself over a cliff or find exaltation in living in the present?

The nature of art is evolutionary–at its best it extends and elevates your knowledge, emotions, and senses. But just because it is our nature to live doesn’t mean we can’t reject life and commit suicide. Art at its worst––I’m talking about postmodernism now––shits on humanity, benevolence, authenticity, and love and leave us with nothing, or worse than nothing. This works both privately, in the deepest recesses of our souls, and publicly, in popular and institutionalized art of our time. In both cases you don’t have to be a victim.

Past all the noise, art as a beacon gives you a choice for your personal future: be a cynic embracing snark, apathy, and ineptness; or be the good person that embraces innovation, authenticity, and human potential. Duchamp, The Fountain (facsimile), the “original” from 1917 was submitted but not shown (probably trashed) by the Society of Independent Artists’ salon in New York. Newberry, Denouement, 1987, oil on linen, 54×78″. A masterpiece of integrating perception, color theory, heart, and our potential for meaningful human connections.

Take the Test

Block out some time to examine art you love and what is popular on social media sites and in contemporary art museums. Lots of people pick art that supports how they feel, you might feel angry or depressed so you could connect with rage art or emptiness. But the test is not how you feel. Rather, it is about how would you like to feel in the near and distant future. Do you really want to be angry your whole life? Die from loneliness? Or do you want to find your inner bliss? The art you surround yourself with pulls you into its path and acts as your future’s beacon. “Is that where I want to go?” In the same way you can see where your culture is heading. Just take a look at a social media site. Some of the things I see are a lot of horror-based art struggling to release hope in a dim distant light. The wisdom of Reinhold Niebuhr comes to mind: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” We can’t directly change the art of our time but we can do anything we bloody well want to with our own collection.

Since childhood, I have consistently chosen the path of artistic evolution. As an artist, I have sought and found an alternative to postmodernism, and I continue to test the limits of the sublime as I paint. Going against the grain has been at times a difficult choice, but the inner peace and joy of choosing to grow, learn, and mature is my reward. It is a magnificent place to be. Please join me in choosing evolution.

Michael Newberry, Idyllwild, 11/25/2019

The Surface Vs. 3D Paradox Solved

06-Newberry-Color-Vibration-Study-LightE

There was a crazy split in art history between the modernist perspective of being true to the surface of the canvas vs. the classical window looking at out the world. Paradoxically, both are true but they missed what connects them: light and color vibrations dance on our cornea’s surface.

The recent color charts below are a range of colors of different tones and hues. The project was to bring each color up to the surface, they feel about 1/8″ above the surface as if they are painted ceramic chips. I successfully tweaked them until the paint raised the vibration of the color. Then I began editing small 9×12″ paintings from a trip on Route 66. In each I brought the color vibrations up to the surface yet maintained the “window on to the world”. Notice the rocking horse’s cast green-yellow shadow, and how it rises to the surface yet still resonates as a shadow.

Armed with this new insight I have been applying it to my current life size humanist work, a nude at home in my studio sanctuary. Integrating this new process will be my evolutionary project for the coming years.

Nude Reclining

Newberry, Nude Reclining, pastel on black paper, 20x30"

I drew this the other evening from a live model. It is play on Duchamp’s Nude Descending and I have thought of doing a painting with this overlapping concept, we will see. The concept is not new, it happens all the time with life drawers doing quick poses, or a continuous pose, when the model moves very slowly from one pose to another and artists draw it as quickly as possible with overlapping marks. It also happens with Renaissance drawings even with cave paintings, dues to running out of surface.

I just uploaded to my archive.

Five Pastel Still Lifes

Newberry, Double O, pastel, 18x24"

Today I uploaded these pastel still lifes to my archive. They are in my Idyllwild studio’s drawing drawers. There is difficult oxymoron in painting and pastel which is that color kills light and light kills color, but I think with these I achieved the perfect balance bringing out the best of both. At the moment they are available and upon sale they will be framed with museum Tru-Vue glass, the best, no glare all you see is the beauty of the pastel and paper.

Color Theory: Shadow and Depth Share the Same Color Base

Newberry, Clay Jar with Burnt Umber Shadows, 2017, oil on linen, 10x8"

Painting Is a Lie That Helps Us See More

An important part of being a true artist is exploring visual knowledge. In this series of small 10×8″ paintings I tested my hypothesis that the hue (color) of shadows would have similar hues in spatial depth. The idea was gleaned from two things: looking at landscapes when the distant mountains are blue and there is blue in the shadows of everything including in the foreground. And from my study of the colors of the light and shadows of Rembrandt and Monet, what was different yet similar between them.

At first glance of my paintings above look fairly natural and you will notice the simple objects gently lit. Which is a good thing. This implies that the hypothesis is working. They each have a different color base: red, black, burnt umber, manganese blue, ultra marine blue, gray, and sienna. This means when a lit white stripe in the foreground enters into a shadow it will merge with that shadow’s color base, for instance if the base is manganese blue the white stripe now turns turquoise. The real complexity begins when the further you go back in space the colors of things take on more manganese blue hues.

This fits with a classical view of warmer colors come forward and cooler colors go back but what happens when we reverse this and give the shadows the hot red or sienna and use those hues to blend with the background colors? Yay, it still works in the sense of creating depth and light. As soon as the first artists started painting real things like horses on two-dimensional cave walls there was a paradox that it was a lie and a truth. The advantage of being able to work with radically different color schemes gives the artist more emotional range and visual options. And it gives the viewer more to look for in the world around them.