Floyd Newsum's paintings convey a deeply personal, nuanced, and optimistic expression of historical change and motion. Newsum was born in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had first hand experience observing socio-political and cultural change take shape in the 1960’s. As an adolescent he marched with Martin Luther King Jr. alongside his father, a local firefighter.
Newsum received his BFA from the Memphis College of Art and his MFA from Temple University in Philadelphia. He has been a professor of drawing and painting at the University of Houston for over thirty years. Two of the artist's works have been acquired by the new Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American Culture and History (to open in 2015) within the last eighteen months.
The current exhibition at Wade Wilson Art in Santa Fe celebrates the most recent acquisition with a selection of paintings. Having evolved from his previous works on paper utilizing watercolors and thin washes, Newsum's work in recent years has been characterized by thick, sculptural application of paint and unadulterated smears of crayon and pastel. With a childlike and primitive style, each painting involves steps of layering together not only pigment, but collaging sketches, photographs, and pieces of various detritus as well as piecing together multiple papers and mounting them onto canvas.
Floyd Newsum, Sirigu Blue Bathers at Sunset, 2011, Oil and acrylic on paper mounted on canvas, 52 x 40 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Wade Wilson Art.
From so many diverse elements emerges a unified composition, characterized by simple imagery and playful, spontaneous strokes of paint. Collaging has the effect of rudimentary scrap-booking, in which the presence of the scrap seems more important than the execution of its presentation. The scraps, however, end up submerged in and subsumed by the artist's energetic application of pigment. His palette is dominated by primary colors and vivid, saturated hues. Each stroke and smear is so thick that the color is better described as affixed to the surface, rather than applied to it. This is conspicuously true where the artist has affixed whole pieces of crayons and pastels, wrappers and all, to the canvas. The curious embellishment is perhaps the result of a desire for such intensity of color that only the materiality of the color itself would suffice. Ultimately, the primitive, process-oriented layering of distinct visual forms and materials results in a readable, tangible composition utilized to communicate intellectual conceptions of change, progress, and histories – big and small.
Obscured beneath the dominating abstract strokes and gestures of pure color are representational images, often of a simple, symbolic nature, such as repeated images of flattened-out dogs, sketchy birds, or miniature wooden ladders. While the straightforward shapes are accessible and universalizing, as references they are left open-ended and serve to open the composition up to the viewer's individual experience. Conversely, there are images with a very specific, autobiographical resonance, including sketched portraits, old photographs, and bits of trash. These personal elements are unfamiliar despite their specificity, invoking recognition of the deeply intimate details of another individual's experience. These two aspects of Newsum's subject matter, the universal and the unique, are woven together in a vision of growth in which discrete, unrelated elements coincide and collide, an experience common to all.
Floyd Newsum, Blue Dog on a Cloudy Day, 2012, Oil and acrylic on paper mounted on canvas, 54 x 67 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Wade Wilson Art.
Blue Dog on a Cloudy Day (2012) is an example of a typical composition in that it juxtaposes a representational plane against one of abstract painterly gestures. Discrete marks of color vibrate against one another without blending. Each maintains its individual agency while partaking of the visual whole. On the right, a primitively drawn dog is reminiscent of a childhood companion. Around the edges of the papers are collaged ladders constructed out of wooden sticks and painted. The ladders repeated throughout the exhibition strike a balance between Newsum's universalizing symbols and personal connotations. They allude to the specific experience of the artist's father's role as a firefighter, but also more broadly represent ideas of growth, ascension, and renewal through rescue.
The concept of renewal is reiterated in Sirigu Blue Bathers at Sunset (2011). This canvas consists almost entirely of sculptural mark-making in red, blue and yellow, with accents of white, purple and sky blue. Peeking out from the energetic whorl of color are drawn stick figures floating and bathing amidst the viscous paint. Bathing quite commonly conjures up ideas of renewal; however, the reference to Sirigu is more opaque. Sirigu refers to a Ghanaian village in which the women repaint in intricate patterns the exterior walls of their earthen huts every year after the rainy season. This act of mark-making has temporal value, contrasting with the general Western convention of art-making as resulting in an object to preserve. In the repetitive acts at Sirigu, the work contains within itself the impetus for renewal.
Floyd Newsum's painted works contain a similar impulse. The individual agency of the single mark of paint is left intact, yet from a sea of such marks emerges the makings of a pattern as unique as the elements that comprise it. A parallel to these formal relationships within the picture plane can be drawn to the individual; with a constellation of their own unique references and experiences, the individual is also part of a whole pattern, and as such simultaneously makes up and recognizes universal symbols within that pattern. Similarly, a young boy partaking in the civil rights movement brings his unique constellation of experiences into a pattern of forward-motion, not because he intended to do so, but simply by being there. Newsum's work conceives of change along the axis of micro to macrocosmic experience, mutually informing one another. Created again and again, like the women of Sirigu, these paintings don't exist only as expressive compositions, but as media for the next emerging pattern. And, with the help of a few ladders, the outlook is optimistic.
(Image on top: Floyd Newsum, I know the Grackle, but You Don't Know Me, 2012, Oil and mixed media on paper mounted on canvas, 48 x 58 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Wade Wilson Art.)