William Newman’s metamorphic people and animals both threaten and beckon.
The artist first made his curious, contorted images in the early 1980s — they look like reflections in an amusement park’s mirrors — and he produced more for his current solo exhibit at the David Adamson Gallery.
He used an Apple computer in 1985 to “stretch” his portraits by feeding photographs and drawings into the machine. He then pulled out the computer-generated likenesses horizontally or vertically for surrealist anamorphic images.
“You can mix up art and science just fine by combining paint and computers,” says Mr. Newman, 52.
Multiple anamorphic viewpoints are not new. Michelangelo used them to great effect in his wall-sized “Last Judgment” in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel in Rome. He also employed anamorphic angles for the chapel’s gigantic ceiling figures, to be viewed from far below.
Mr. Newman, however, uses simultaneous front and side views to give a dislocated, unreal ambience. Along the way, he produces psychologically powerful portraits showing specific emotions. The artist aims at upsetting his audiences and continues to discomfit them in his exhibit “Cracked 2000.”
His is not just visual deception. Mr. Newman engages viewers with both humor and horror. He produces faces that look like smashed squashes. He paints bizarre self-portraits that merge with photos of animals or family members. He presents kaleidoscopic journeys through his past, present and future in “Ten Cracked Glass Boxes.” The animated videos put it all together.
The artist clearly enjoys painting himself and his human and animal families. “I decided it was the time to bring it all together,” he says.
Mr. Newman realized he had left out his father, whom he calls “my first protagonist,” after finishing the exhibit’s first set of black-and-white “Cracked Glass” images. The artist had explored the transient nature of human life through combined images of himself and family members.
“I decided that the next series of paintings … ‘EIEIO,’ would be about us. Since [my father] was a gentleman farmer — our farm was near the Maryland side of Harpers Ferry — and I had been a gentleman farmer’s work hand, I used our farm animals to portray him,” Mr. Newman wrote in his artist’s statement.
Consider the complexity of meaning and technique in “Bill/Cock” from the color EIEIO series. The painter transformed himself into a rooster by photographing with digital and non-digital cameras, “sketching” the image into the computer and then applying old-master painting techniques.
He first paints with a transparent black paint, then underpaints with black and white, and finally layers glazes for the colors. Mr. Newman achieves his signature brilliant hues, smooth surfaces and translucent glazes with this traditional, time-consuming work.
The artist obviously enjoys himself as a rooster, with his own hair flowing from the cock’s red comb. He also likes painting the family pets, an African gray parrot called Spy and a French bulldog named Pop.
Both roam his home and studio in Northwest, but his koi stays in its tank. Mr. Newman portrays the creatures as “Pop/Pop,” a cute little dog in a hat; “Koi/Bill,” a fierce-mouthed fish-human; and “Bill/Spy,” an enormous, very handsome digital painting in black and white printed by David Adamson.
Other animals are not so affectionately or humorously painted. The druggie monkey of “Bill/Ape” rebelliously blows out smoke, but his eyes show he is scared. The vibrantly colored pink piglet of “Bill/Pig” looks dazed, as if from a camera’s flashbulb.
The artist began his painting on a dark note. His father, a doctor, had wanted Mr. Newman to follow the medical profession, but the young man dropped out of the premedical program at the University of Maryland to paint.
His early work was realistic and targeted political issues such as nuclear disarmament.
“My work in premed at Maryland actually inspired my interest in angst, gore and the terrible parts of life,” he says. The artist painted “The Last Marathon” at this time. It shows people running a race while an atom bomb drops on New York City.
Mr. Newman earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from the Maryland Institute, College of Art in Baltimore and a master of fine arts from the University of Maryland in College Park. He taught as an associate professor at the Corcoran College of Art and Design beginning in 1973.
Mr. Newman discovered computers in 1985 and began his bizarre “stretch” portraits. Computers also proved useful when he developed multiple sclerosis four years later.
Computers enabled him to develop ideas first on the screen and then with the help of assistants. (Glass artist Dale Chihuly, blinded in one eye, has worked with assistants during his entire career. Medieval and Renaissance masters regularly worked with apprentices.)
In 1995, Mr. Newman diverged briefly from his usual pursuits to paint oversized flowers. He previously had avoided anything that smacked of beauty, but his father had died the year before.
“I painted them for him, even though he was dead — it was a spiritual thing,” he says. He named the show “Skylight” for the light patterns falling from his studio skylights onto the flowers.
Mr. Newman’s art has both bite and beauty. Its paradoxes are part of its appeal. He focuses on his family and his animals, but viewers have no way of knowing the names and roles in the Newman family constellation in the “Cracked Glass” series unless they read the artist’s statement. The gallery needs to provide fuller labels.
The artist has shaped a 25-year career by plumbing the depths of his imagination. Viewers can well wish for another quarter-century of creative surprises by one of Washington’s premier artists.
WHAT: “Cracked 2000”WHERE: David Adamson Gallery, 406 Seventh Street NWWHEN: 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and noon through 5 p.m. Saturdays, through Dec. 22TICKETS: FreePHONE: 202/628-0257