Mary Newcomb's Visual Poems
`OFTEN," wrote Mary Newcomb in a catalog note introducing a 1976 exhibition of her paintings, "I work with reticence. This is because it is not a good idea to tear apart a quiet, balanced moment."
Her art is filled with quiet, balanced moments. Above all, it is an art that evokes moments - small events in the countryside world where she lives, occurrences observed intently and not forgotten, encounters, something noticed in passing. Virtually everything she paints might equally have made a poem as a painting. Indeed, she not infrequently adds something to them in word form, more than a necessary title: an extra that enhances, a touch of poetry, an amusing or informative footnote.
Newcomb sees the extraordinary in the ordinary with a persistence that amounts to a kind of wonder. "At times I paint with astonishment, even to myself," she wrote in the same catalog. Happenstance catches her eye. A habitual maker of notes, she also draws and draws - with a potent mixture of apparently easy freedom and incisive concentration - in order to record, to grasp, to not forget.
Her drawings, however, are much more than mere observations; she is thinking about the possibility of some future painting as she draws. It is as if the act of drawing is to stock her visual memory; this faculty is what she taps when she is painting, because then the drawings themselves are rarely referred to directly. Her drawing is done out-of-doors in the main, since her theme is the countryside and everything to do with it, from the most intimate and close-up, to the wider landscape, from insects and
birds, to cows standing in meadows, cyclists charging downhill, drying hay, daffodil sellers, spiders' webs on pylons and boats.
Newcomb's paintings, however, are done indoors. They are by nature, then, to do with memory rather than direct observation. Her paintings are not of her drawings. They are in and of themselves, more permanently evoking the remembered moments, having their own color and atmosphere and size. Then the moments, though still lively and often surpisingly elusive, are rendered typical, recognized as part of a life pattern, events actually characteristic of the returning cycle of seasons and the ways of country living. However poignantly transient or intangible, the moments are now explained in terms of paint fixed on canvas or board. They have become shareable, hangable images in frames.
The great difficulty in writing anything about Mary Newcomb is that heavy, ponderous words immediately misrepresent the touch and air of her work. She is not a heavy painter - though her lightness of statement belies an underlying intensity of feeling. Her "reticence" is the diametric opposite of the pretentious or pompous. She herself discounts the idea of making "great" art: Great art, she says, is when an artist does something completely new, in a completely new language. But she is more inventive and
different in the freshness of her language than she might like to admit - in unexpected composition and viewpoint, in subtle color that has a spice and tang to it, in a blunt, no-nonsense integrity of brushmark and line that means that the marks she makes are never facile. In all these departments, she is original, unpredictable, even sometimes wonderfully idiosyncratic.
What Newcomb never does is resort to a formula. Each painting seems newly thought. It doesn't rely on previous achievements or solutions. In this way, the individuality of her vision shows through even though her reticence persistently pulls her back from too much obvious expression of herself in the world she observes and envisions.
The way she paints and draws has evolved out of a happy combination of training and lack of training. She describes herself as self-taught. But as a student during the war, working among marine biologists, she did learn to draw the specimens they were collecting with meticulous detail and scrupulous shading made of hundreds of dots.
As an artist, she employs a quite primitive directness one minute, and a meticulous proficiency the next. She knows with canny intuition when expression is best served by bringing as much sheer skill into play as possible, or, conversely, in humorously admitting that what she is trying to paint is frankly beyond her powers and should probably remain so.
The one thing she certainly isn't is "naive." If she retains elements of a child-imagination, it is not undeliberate or unconscious. A "naive" artist, however charming and engaging, however expressive, is making art in spite of his technical or intellectual limitations; his determination or need to paint is not discouraged in spite of his primitive ability.
Newcomb is nothing like that. She is educated, well-read, has a degree in natural sciences, and taught secondary-level science and mathematics. She has never hesitated to learn from looking hard, and sometimes with astute criticalness, at other artists' work. Further, in the late 1980s, she wrote a diary in which she reveals herself to be as original and sensitive in her way of capturing her day-by-day experiences in words as she is with pencil or brush.
Paradoxically, for someone who is not at all given to overstatement and whose approach to the idea of emotion being shown in painting probably agrees with Wordsworth's description of poetry as "emotion recollected in tranquillity," Newcomb sometimes allows her humor to betray a rather rich enjoyment of the hyperbolic, of things that go "over-the-top."
Her "Cockerel" bestrides the earth like a colossus. Talk about macho swank and bluster in the farmyard! In Newcomb's hands he is not only magnificent, crowding her picture space, he is also gloriously absurd. At the same time she paints him with a vitality and appreciation that is quite as much celebration as fun at his expense.
"The Lady With the Flowers That She Grew" displays in paint the overstatement of which well-manured nature is capable, in a horticultural rather than an agricultural context. At first the "lady" is somewhat difficult to find, so overwhelmed is she by her bulging bunch of sweet williams. She is pushed over into the corner of the picture, and, not unlike a figure in a painting by an artist Newcomb has much admired, Milton Avery, she is almost a caricature of Matissean simplicity, little more than a large s hape with a small and completely featureless face.
But with a bunch of flowers like that, who needs a face? The flowers have taken her over lock, stock, and barrel. But while Newcomb makes comedy out of this subject, she at the same time offers a wholehearted appreciation of the color, form, and burgeoning generosity of this particular kind of common garden flower en masse.
If the "lady" in this painting is upstaged by her flowers, in "The Demoiselles" the human presence is reduced to no more than a small but surprising pink reflection in the dim and reeded pond where the damselflies hover and scoot over the shadowy water in the close warmth of a July evening. The dragonflies are disporting themselves at will in their realm, and Newcomb's "reticence" wants to witness but not at all to intrude. "Nature makes man small" may be the message - makes him realize he is only a back ground part of the whole. A note in her diary has bearing on this silent, close, and secret painting:
"ornamental fish looking down into
so many strata
It is a world in itself
(but shattered when a reflection of a
suddenly seen upside down in vivid
as a stranger in a world underneath
Newcomb often shows, in her paintings, a fascination for the idea that the viewer and, of course, the painter herself, can visualize themselves playing some rather minor role inside the picture. The reflection in the dim pond might almost be of her on a bridge as she watches the dragonflies. The pervasive humor of her work allows for such an interpretation: The reticent artist a hardly noticeable part of a tranquil instant.