I love Brooklyn-based artist John Newsom’s work. His pieces are bold, bright, and full of unexpected color combinations. His oversized canvases depict nature—“beautiful timeless things that go on forever like a bird, flower, shell, grape, or landscape.” However his interpretation feels totally new and modern. In person, John is just as exuberant and confident as his work. His enthusiasm for what he does is really infectious. In anticipation of his May 1st opening of his new show at Marc Straus gallery, John sat down to talk about his new work, life as an artist, and what’s next.
When did you first know you wanted to become an artist?
When I was five years old. But it was really when my father surprised me on my fourteenth birthday by taking me to The Dallas Museum of Art. There I encountered Rauschenberg’s largest Combine Painting titled, ‘Skyway’. That’s when I knew I had to go all the way.
Tell us about your journey in the New York art world, how did you go from graduating from NYU with a Masters of Fine Arts to becoming a successful contemporary artist?
After completing graduate school I began working two separate art-handling jobs. One was at a gallery specializing in secondary Modern Masters, the other was with a specialized art shipping company. They were both very labor intensive but I could pay my bills and paint. I also learned every aspect of what it takes to mount a world-class exhibition, from conception to realization. This was an invaluable piece of real world experience for me. I would work all day taking care and overseeing amazing works by Matisse, Miro, Picasso, Renoir, Calder, Modigliani, etc. Then in the evenings I would go to openings and parties to meet people and see what kinds of work was being made. Afterwards I would head back to my apartment and paint all night. I never ever slept during those early years. After about five years of doing this I began to get a few pieces included in some group shows. I eventually joined a gallery which allowed me to quit my day jobs and focus solely on my painting.
Tell us about the inspiration for your latest show.
The current exhibition is titled ‘Bestiary’, and is inspired by a small elegant sixteenth-century manuscript depicting animals that tells the stories of the early days in Ancient Rome. These parchment renderings were actually called ‘bestiaries’, and used throughout Europe and Scandinavia to tell stories of people, places, cultures, and heritages. This manuscript became a springboard for me and now has culminated in 18 paintings over the last two and half years. Only in my case, the images are painted on large canvases and define various themes of love, beauty, struggle, redemption and vindication, among many other modes of thought and expression.
How would you describe your new work?
What do you hope people will take away from your work after seeing it?
Since I’m a type of naturalist, painting the human figure is something that has never really interested me, but the figure of the viewer is very important to me. They complete the picture. So, I hope they will take with them a renewed sense of life, of living, of the fact that they are a very small part of a much larger organic world, and that within that world their imaginations are free to travel any and everywhere. There is no limitation other than their own ability to imagine. To reconnect the viewer with their own sense of original nature, this is my hope.
Your latest work is full of vibrant, amazing color—why is color such so crucial in this body of work? How do you choose your palette?
This particular series is a complex juggling act of riotous color combinations. It’s a celebratory body of work that needs big color. This series has an introduction of a few Mediterranean hues, where normally I would use a hotter palette. So there are juxtapositions with cooler passages in areas of these works
You generally feature animals, fish, plants, flowers in your work—why are you fascinated with exploring the natural world?
It’s really all there is, no? And it’s wonderful… amazing actually. Meaning that these natural things are at the core of our existence. These are things worth paying attention to and enhancing. All great artists simply point things out that are already there right in front of us, from cave painters to Warhol.
John Newsom ‘BESTIARY’, runs from May 1 – June 30, 2013 at MARC STRAUS, 299 Grand Street.
For more information, please visit www.marcstraus.com