EXTRACT Soanyway Magazine Issue 14, August 2023

David R Newton - The conceptual, the autobiographical, and the playful - text by Derek Horton

Painting is a kind of thinking; ideas evolving and developing through the making process. Yet paintings appear to their viewers as fully formed. The gestation; the dead-ends; the abandoned compositions, reworked elements, and overpainted false-starts; all these are invisible in the final work as it is confronted by the painting’s viewers. But nothing is instantaneous; this illusion is part of the art.

Painting can also be seen as an act of translation, from a language of words and images formed in the artist’s mind into something materialised as an object in the world. In the mind there isn’t necessarily a temporal order: thoughts and ideas stack on top of one another and make either composite sense or tangled confusion. But painting demands that a compositional order is found, the elements orchestrated, the images combined, so that someone else might perhaps understand the thinking behind them. Crucially though, since looking can also be an act of translation, they might perhaps see in them thoughts and ideas of their own too.

This, it seems to me, is the context in which David R Newton’s paintings function, but with the added complexity that, once a work is complete, the artist is also a viewer. So the process repeats endlessly as each painting is translated again into another, complicated by many more layers of translation, setting up constant references between new and existing works, reinterpreting ideas, objects or images in different ways, remaking works, making replica works, making objects to make paintings of them, taking images from paintings to make objects; all emphasising the constantly shifting but always present relationships between different elements within an entire body of work. This methodology creates an immersive, miniature, self-contained world where constantly everything references everything else. This is reflected in Newton’s strategies for showing the work as well as his strategies for making it: there is a theatricality in the composition of the individual works and also in the orchestration of them as individual components within the overall installation of an exhibition.

Newton himself describes this process as one of distilling conceptual ideas (whether triggered by historic paintings, childhood memories, or whatever else) into abstract schematic forms. Encrypted in these forms are aspects that become more pictorially or figuratively resolved in later paintings. Sometimes these can take on a 3-dimensional form, but then they are more like stage props than sculpture and could more accurately be described as solid paintings, which is how I view them. An example is Newton’s installation Return to Sender, one of many dramatic punctuations throughout his 2023 solo show Double Barrel. A life-size set of New York brownstone steps lead both ominously and comically to a floating lilac door, above which a trompe l’oeil replica of a restaurant sign near his studio reads, ‘Hong Kong’. Beyond this hand-painted assemblage (regardless of whether he is working in two or three dimensions, Newton always remains a painter!) renditions of the same steps subsequently reappear in paintings. Various versions of particular motifs recur frequently in his work, orchestrated in different ways and driven by different emotional responses. In characteristically self-deprecating fashion, he has described this process as, “essentially a kind of daydreaming”, in which, “things that stick around in the mind for long enough for some reason become folded into the work in the hope of finding some kind of lyrical synthesis of them”.

The ‘things that stick around in his mind’ cover a broad and deep range, including: the colours of milkshakes; the looped background aesthetics of Hanna-Barbera cartoons; the sun baked vernacular of movie backlots; the once pristine precincts and plazas of his suburban childhood and the brutalism of his teenage haunts like Birmingham’s Bull Ring; films by Powell and Pressburger, Mike Nichols, John Boorman, John Schlesinger, Robert Altman and David Lynch; the schlock TV of Quincy M E, Columbo and Crossroads; the interiors of working men’s clubs and dowdy pubs; early video games; Brutus shirts and Sta-Prest trousers; American muscle cars; contrasting styles of music from jazz to post-punk. But overlaid onto all this are literary references that range from Balzac to Thoreau and Charles Dickens, and from Henry Miller to Saul Bellow, Paul Auster, and Ian McEwan. He also has a deep knowledge of art history that informs what he describes as “riffing with influences” from Caravaggio, Vermeer and Victorian genre painting to Black Mountain College, and from Duchamp to Paul Thek, and “the three M’s” (as he respectfully calls them), Mike Kelley, Mike Nelson, and his friend Matt Crawley.

This by no means exclusive or complete list reveals a very culturally-specific and gendered perspective and focus. It’s one I identify easily with––we are a generation apart but both working-class Brummie lads who grew up in Birmingham’s hinterland with dreams of escape fed largely by American popular culture and eventually by art school. (Incidentally, I realise now, in a way I couldn’t have then, how particular the British experience of American popular culture is, or at least was for our generations, born in the 1950s and 60s. Americans of the same generation experienced it differently in just the way that their experience of and response to the Beatles or British movies were very different to ours.) In this sense, Newton’s work can be seen to be highly context specific. If you are of the background and generation that immediately recognises its imagery, drawn from iconic fragments of proletarian popular culture, these are the hook you get caught on. But, as you get reeled in, you are pulled away from familiar waters by the new insights and connections that are prompted by the familiarity of the signs you recognise. To mix metaphors, these can then be the take-off point for a flight of lyrical imagination.

These specificities might suggest that Newton’s paintings are accessible only to a limited audience that share his cultural references, but their seductive materiality counteracts this. He speaks of “the rolling of the creative dice, requiring a leap of faith”. He means a faith that the specifics that trigger him will still communicate the general through the work to a viewer unaware of them. To put it another way, the thing that the work comes out of isn’t the thing that it’s ‘about’. There are many references in Newton’s work to facades and thresholds, their materiality, but also their artifice. They invite an exploration that at any given turn might be halted by dead ends that intrigue and redirect attention. So the reading of the work in a contemporary context and by a diverse audience isn’t necessarily dependent on knowledge of any of its specific references, even though the work itself is highly dependent on their presence in the mind of the artist in the act of making it. The idiosyncratic or autobiographical particulars don’t necessarily dominate. Rather, the engagingly immersive installation and combinations of works, the seductive qualities of their surfaces, which Newton refers to as his “primal, experiential joy in materiality”, and, perhaps most of all, the elevation of the mundane (“from the gutter to the stars”), all communicate to viewers in their reading of the work, even if the specifics aren’t necessarily recognisable from their own particular background, gender, or generation.

There are clues both to the importance of autobiography in Newton’s approach to painting, and to the reasons why the viewer need not be excluded by it, in this comment he makes about his uncertain relationship to his own history: “I feel uncertain about the ‘I’ in the work. I still feel like that 14 year-old, uncertain kid, I feel ignorant, but that’s why I still feel giddy and joyful. It’s a way of exploring things that are just hunches amongst a constant influx of feelings.” His hunches remain just that, without attempting to think them through into something fixed. Nothing in the work is definitive, the ‘hunches’ are materialised through constantly making new things, but they are always held in a shifting relationship to old things. Nothing is fixed, so there are always new relationships to be made, and therefore new works to be created. This fluid and organic process of remaking, repainting and reconstructing articulates the artist’s constant uncertainty as something positive and constructive. It is his way of negotiating and understanding the world.

In the comment quoted earlier, Newton equates uncertainty with ignorance, but this is inaccurate of course. His uncertainty is deeply rooted in knowledge; in understanding and thinking about how other artists have represented things. As he says, “there’s always a feedback loop between what you’re experiencing and what you know about.” But the work’s value is that it doesn’t use this knowledge to attempt definitive understandings. It concentrates on thinking through ideas, recognising that repeatedly questioning things is better than thinking hubristically that you understand them.

To look closely at David R. Newton’s paintings and to enter their self-contained world involves a willingness to engage with constantly shifting transitions between the conceptual, the autobiographical, and the playful. You are confronted by graphic and in-your-face imagery, punctuated often by surface qualities and sometimes entire paintings that are fragile and delicate. Their deliberately clunky facture, cinematic influences, cartoonish trompe l’oeil, jokey or dumbly descriptive titling (Forlorn Sandwich, The Milk Powder Plot, Back of an American Till, for example), combine to create a disarmingly down-to-earth façade, behind which lurks both philosophical introspection and a world-view characterised by both wide-eyed curiosity and a sunny-side-up cynicism. My sense of Newton’s work and his approach to it resonates with these words of Henry Miller on his connection to living on the street: “It means to wander all your life, to be free. It means accident and incident, drama, movement. It means above all dream. A harmony of irrelevant facts which gives to your wandering a metaphysical certitude.”

I can think of no better way to encapsulate this than to conclude with two ‘origin stories’ concerning his paintings, one that Newton recounted directly to me, and another that he described in writing for his recent exhibition Double Barrel. Sitting in a train carriage, looking at a discarded Silk Cut cigarette package and a discarded Snickers chocolate bar wrapper on the table in front of him, a vaguely visible landscape seen through the dirty window behind them, he made a visual connection between this scene and Augustus Leopold Egg’s 1862 painting, The Travelling Companions. This became a painting, Schema of Faraway, which marked the start of the schematic approach described earlier in this text — a visual distillation of the components of the original source image, abstracted, reinterpreted, and resolved pictorially in more figuratively descriptive paintings. The same process occurs in reverse in Science Fiction, in which a still-life flower painting is repeated as a simple, schematic painting of its constituent colours and the two are exhibited together. As he wrote: “It’s a painting born of ignorance. I’m pretty ignorant about flowers and their physical constituents, so the painting depicts only a translation of what I observed. The flowers were pretty and fragrant, delicate and alien. Science and my physiological attributes helped me paint them, yet I largely have a fictitious understanding of them, and art is my pondering of the strangeness of my relationship to them.”