John McNamara has investigated the relationship between painting and photography for the past twenty-eight years, through making paintings that engage photography as a hidden painted element. Since the photography literally exists beneath the surface, there is a strange conceptual ambiguity relational to the frozen moment of a person, place, or thing that lies underneath the interpretive nature of the painting process on top. In a number of his paintings McNamara uses photographs of people who are engaged doing things in different parts of the world on a particular day of a year, to make a new sense of place and time. In other pieces, he may take people of roughly the same age, but coming from different decades, and fuse them into the painted reality. McNamara is sensitive to the "time machine" aspect of collage and its potential. The content of his work investigates conceptions of transcendence, moments in popular culture, and sharable life realities. McNamara considers his paintings to be open investigative narratives. His goal in making paintings is to provoke a sense of curiosity about meaning within the viewer, similar to the surprise and curiosity he experiences when constructing a painting.
Below Bay Area writer Dewitt Cheng gives his a further take on McNamara’s painting.
“The commandeering of pre-existing, “low,” vernacular material for “high” art derives from Cubist and Dadaist collage, developing with Johns’ and Rauschenberg’s hybrid 2D/3D artworks and Pop Art’s mass-media image appropriations. McNamara continues this rich tradition by assembling printed images from magazines and other sources. Instead of presenting the works as is, however, or re-photographing them (or composing them in the computer), McNamara repaints the images in oils, preserving the source material in idealized, unchanging form, atop the original material. His unorthodox practice is analogous to, say, decorating mummy cases with encaustic portraits of upwardly mobile dead Egyptians, or making a 1:1-scale map of the topography underfoot, as in Borges’ story quoted above. McNamara, fascinated with combining photographic frozen moments from different eras and areas, and preserving them in the amber of art, writes: “For me, collage is a time machine of sorts. The painted skin on top jettisons the photo document into the world of painting; but these people, places and things still speak from underneath the painted skin.” The artist thus practices a kind of Photorealist painting—he particularly admires the complex urban landscapes of Richard Estes—crossed with conceptual performance and ritual, the painting being the end product of his focused attention, even compulsion.” John McNamara