- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 13, 2002

William "Bill" Newman, Washington painter, computer artist, seer and teacher, is having a first retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Why did it take so long to gain this recognition? Mr. Newman, 54, is an exciting artist who challenges both the potential and limits of cutting-edge technology and traditional painting techniques.

Local artists don't often receive their due. Even for someone of Mr. Newman's caliber, only 25 paintings are presented in two small galleries. The exhibit does, however, shows the painter's less familiar earlier work as well as the better-known computer-manipulated art and this is an important contribution. Exhibit curator Stacey Schmidt, assistant curator of contemporary art at the Corcoran, named the show "William Newman: Peripheral Vision" after the "Peripheral Vision" painting in the show. The work looks like the squashed head of a man and for Ms. Schmidt, it expresses the artist's interest in multiple angles of seeing.

Mr. Newman has influenced several generations of students at the Corcoran College of Art and Design with his exploration of the classic technique of layering glazes over imprimatura (monochromatic underpaintings), a method also used by such old masters as Johannes Vermeer. He also teaches a course titled, "Digital Arts for Fine Arts and Photography."

While experimenting with photography, video and computers, Mr. Newman investigates all the possibilities as he does with traditional painting techniques. When he started using computers in 1985, he used them to create bizarre "stretch" portraits and sympathetic combinations of humans and animals.

Mr. Newman's parrot, Spy, is part of a household of beloved pets and the artist used him in "Bill/Spy." It's a small, many layered, fused portrait of himself and the bird. "Bill/Pig" is part of his "Cracked Glass" series and more sardonic. Both paintings show Mr. Newman's signature meshing of horror and humor.

The craggy-featured, handsome painter with curly brown hair has shaped an unusual career. His father was a physician who wanted him to follow in his footsteps. The older Newman also had a farm near the Maryland side of Harpers Ferry. "This is why there're so many farm animals in my art as I used to work as a farmhand," the artist says.

Medical influences turned out to be most influential at the beginning of his career. Mr. Newman had dropped out of pre-med classes at the University of Maryland but took images of what he calls "the blood and guts" from dissections with him. "My work at Maryland inspired my preoccupation with angst, gore and the terrible parts of life," he says. His early work was realistic and targeted political issues such as nuclear disarmament. In the strangely prescient "The Last Marathon" (1979), the painter shows a multitude of figures racing across the Verrazano Narrows Bridge just ahead of an atomic bomb exploding behind them.

He was an artist who always bucked the tide. Images from a market-driven art scene and culture of consumerism dominated the art world in the 1980s, but Mr. Newman turned to less obvious subjects. In an atmospheric mixed-media series he called "Have Faith In Magic," he explored human relationships, as in "What Ya Thinking Mitsubishi Electric" (1985)." With "Is Something Bothering You" and "Her," the works show private moments when couples embrace and then pull apart. "What Ya Thinking" is the most extreme in showing the silence and distance between the couple.

A stunning, very different painting from the 1980s is the brilliantly-colored "Searching for New Colors" (1988), a tribute to the memory of the artist's friend, painter Gene Davis. It depicts a glass-bottomed boat sailing into a colorful sea and sky. Five artists Mr. Davis, Arshile Gorky, James Huckenpahler, James Whitelaw and Mr. Newman look down through little panes of glass. "Searching" is one of the painter's few realist, symbolist works.

The artist first used an Apple computer in 1985 to "stretch" his portraits by feeding photographs and drawings into the machine. He then pulled the computer-generated likenesses out horizontally and vertically for surrealist, anamorphic images. Unfortunately, these multiple-view, amusement park fun house-like images are not included in the show. When the artist uses simultaneous frontal and side views to give a dislocated, unreal ambience, he is at his best.

The Macintosh also facilitated new ways of creative exploring. Mr. Newman's motor skills and vision were declining due to multiple sclerosis, but the disease never slowed him down artistically. He used technology to enhance his paintings by photographing himself, family members, pets and animals with digital and non-digital cameras, next "sketching" the images into the computer and then painting with old master techniques.

When he did his "morphing" series (from the word "transform"), he first had a photograph taken of himself, then a photo of the "morphing" image of his wife, Anne; his fish, Koi; his dog, Poppy; his daughter, Jessica, and others. "I'd put them in a computer that would make 300 litte drawings very fast, and take the one of me in the middle so that I wouldn't automatically choose the best one," he says with a laugh. Images such as "Bill/Koi," "Bill/Spy" and "Bill/Poppy" combine the bite and beauty that is the hallmark of his art.

The "EIEIO" series, perhaps his best known work, looks back to his childhood farm days and verges on the bizarre. "Bill/Sheep," "Bill/Pig," and "Bill/Ape" use humor to convey a disquieting unease. The druggie monkey of "Bill/Ape" rebelliously blows smoke but his eyes look frightened. The hot-pink piglet of "Bill/Pig" seems dazed.

Mr. Newman is one of many Washington artists who is not recognized adequately in his hometown. This exhibit is a start in showing the development and range of his work. But it is really only the tip of the iceberg. Perhaps the Corcoran will mount a fuller and larger retrospective in the near future.


WHAT: "William Newman: Peripheral Vision"

WHERE: Corcoran Gallery of Art, New York Ave. and 17th St.

WHEN: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily (closed Tuesday), until 9 p.m. Thursday, through Aug. 26

TICKETS: $5 adults, $8 families, $3 seniors and member guests, $1 students with valid ID.

PHONE: 202/639-1800

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