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“Tina Newberry”

At Hemphill Fine Arts to June 24

As a self-portraitist enamored of early Northern painting, Tina Newberry has a talent that just wasn’t made for these times. Even with the return of figuration, her work hasn’t been embraced by the tastemakers. Though she is practiced and ready to play in the big game of the ultracompetitive art world, the Philadelphia oil painter sees herself effectively sidelined. She views her personal life in much the same way. She’s 46 and single, lives with a cat, and enjoys gardening. She loves sports—cycling, swimming, and golf—but even at her physical peak she was always an also-ran. She plays guitar—badly. By her own admission, she is hard on herself. But she has a sense of humor about her predicament that dovetails cleanly, unexpectedly with her serious artistic intent. By melding early Renaissance pictorial schemes with warped personal iconography built around golf, her tenuous Scottish ancestry, and a penchant for self-exposure, she succeeds in forming an utterly original answer to a problem that taunts thousands of similarly inclined realists: How can a contemporary painter convincingly work turf more than 500 years old?

Plenty of latter-day Renaissance wannabes attempt to throw comedy into the mix, juxtaposing modern junk with antique styles and settings. (Get it? St. Jerome would never have had a cell phone!) And cute, gimmicky modern realism peppered with art-historical references is no stranger to Washington walls. (Raise a glass to Fred Folsom; Joe Shannon, take a bow.) But almost nobody knows how to make the gags mean anything.

By turning her art-world and real-world rejection into clowning and turning the clowning back on itself, making it autobiographical instead of merely self-referential, Newberry sidesteps the unfashionable painter’s pitfall of embitterment while maintaining emotional resonance. She gets to be a serious traditional painter without being a crotchety, today-hating throwback, and her levity gets some teeth.

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Knowingly using her studio as a kind of fantasy retreat, as a place to act out her wishes as well as to reflect on their thwarting, Newberry paints herself in a number of guises. (More accurately, she paints composites that are rather loosely based on herself. At the opening, a number of viewers wanted to know why she makes herself so ugly. She doesn’t think that she does, although she accepts that her thick-featured figures may remind people of The Potato Eaters. In addition to being 1/16 Scottish, she is the same part Dutch.) In Biceps she grimly pumps a dumbbell. In Longknockers, named for a driving range near her house, she bare-chestedly studies an old golf ball. Family Tree finds her posing nude, wedged in the shallow space between a table and a tacked-up genealogical chart, a dead bonsai in one hand, a pair of long-handled loppers in the other. Another nude, this time bearing a scythe and dubbed Scottish Weedwacker, stands beneath a hovering banner inscribed with the fake Latin subtitle “Herbiferi Terminatrix Scotia.” Mrs. Keith Richards’ Fender is propped against the table she’s sitting on. The Rolling Stone’s skull ring dangles between her bare breasts; she holds one of his custom picks, whose twin lies next to her reading, “Keef Riff Hard.”

In St. Girlfriend she sits, again topless, her breasts sagging, a ripple of fat bubbling up over the waistband of her plaid skirt, staring directly at the viewer, as if offering herself. Paperback copies of The Rules and Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus lie splayed on the floor next to her chair. Tacked to the wall behind her to the left is a picture of a pumped-up, kilt-wearing man who stands near a stethoscope; it’s based on a doctor Newberry has a crush on. To the right is a fanciful botanical illustration of the development of a rose hip. And in the center is a robust, clearly male draft horse, a symbol of her elusive, hard-working dream guy, his bobbed tail playing off her ridiculous vertical topknot, a hairstyle she says did draw gapes when she wore it to Home Depot. The piece de resistance, though, is the upturned horseshoe she holds in her lap like her attribute. “I died of luck!” Newberry exclaims. “I’m a martyr of the boyfriend scene, a martyr of dating.” Though she admits it would be more appropriate for her to be holding the horseshoe with its points to the floor, she says wryly, “I don’t actually want to have a painting out there in the world where there’s permanent bad luck in it.”

In an artist’s statement, Newberry mocks her own desires, as well as the devotional heritage of her art, claiming, “The perverse combination of being nakedly mortified of myself and wanting attention for great accomplishments” has spawned absurd entreaties:

Please God let me wake up tomorrow and be able to play a musical instrument, even if it means my brother now can’t.

Please God let me wake up tomorrow and be a member of the Lady’s PGA.

Please God, let me wake up tomorrow and have well developed calf muscles.

Her flights of fancy are grounded by her aging flesh, which she renders like a true follower of Jan van Eyck and Roger van der Weyden, although she owes more to the craggy physiognomies of their men than to their moon-faced women. She knows what you can get away from and what you’re stuck with. The latter she chalks up, at least in part, to genetics, and for a symbol of her lineage, she has taken up the tartan.

In America, Scottish is a joke heritage, Scottish folkways more goofy than exotic. Derision seems harmless, respect out of the question. Viewers who instantly object to Apu don’t bat an eye at Groundskeeper Willie. And who gets their hackles up over Econo Lodge’s tartan motif? The Welsh can get away with complaining that their ethnicity is associated with reneging, but almost nobody objects to being linked to thrift. And when he thinks of St. Patrick’s Day, no Scottish-American would wish for St. Andrew’s feast day to be similarly honored. (Besides, there is the technological hurdle of plaid beer.) Notwithstanding Scots’ recent efforts at distancing themselves from the crown, they’re too easily folded into the British batter—when they aren’t blowin’ the bagpipe or sportin’ the kilt, that is—for us to bother discerning any distinct flavor. McDonald’s, anyone?

I’d have to be feeling a little needy, for example, if I were to track down the colors of Clan Dixon and start flying them in my rec room. When 12 of Newberry’s 15 faux-Northern panels incorporate a plaid motif, neediness—along with decoration, buffoonishness, and a statement of genetic limitation—is exactly the point. Ethnic self-loathing is pathetic, but Scottish self-loathing is risible. And when she uses the latter to mask the more conventional, personal type of self-hatred, in so obvious a way that it is actually magnified, that’s comedy, folks.

Newberry’s is a cockeyed kind of abjection that admits things probably won’t get better but, hell-with-it, gets on with things. And if fantasy is more rewarding than real life, then why not make a home in the land of make-believe? Even if you can’t commit yourself to it wholeheartedly. Even if—especially if—you suspect that you may be one of life’s losers. Newberry’s brush-to-panel practice may be out of step with modern life, but what could be more up-to-date than her attitude? CP