John Wellington (b. 1961) is a highly imaginative artist. Influences on his work include old master portraits, still lifes, urban and natural landscapes, twentieth-century cinema and popular culture. His sources range from foreign travel and books, to toys, mechanical objects, the Internet, ancient religion and classical mythology. Like the surrealist Giorgio de Chirico, Wellington uses ancient classical statues and fragments as symbolic props in his still lifes and dystopian landscapes.
As the centerpiece of the painting Love Is Blind (2010), Wellington has created an ornate modeled glass Buddha seated beside a giant fragment of the eye of Michelangelo’s David. Inserted near the robe of the Buddha is an Ace of Hearts. The playing card, which is white with red markings, redirects the viewer’s eye back into the composition. A doll, a kind of anime Barbie, catches David’s large staring eye. The artist added the Ace of Hearts when he realized the painting required an additional pictorial device in the foreground to complete the composition. It might also be a symbol of love.
Wellington uses sketchbooks to work out preliminary solutions. Dating back several years, the annotated pages include sketches for finished paintings, anatomy and color studies, research on costumes and architecture from different civilizations, as well as lecture notes and instructions for his art students on materials, styles and technique. Sources are culled from life, details from his travels to foreign countries, subconscious fantasies, dreams, politics and biographical experiences. He has gathered this material in three e-books titled Idols: Demons and Saints, which are available on iTunes, and he plans to issue a fourth e-book by the end of 2015. “The focus of my paintings shifts with the changes in my life,” Wellington writes. “At times my work has been classical, claustrophobic, fetishistic, beautiful, vulgar, architectural, humorous, morbid, decorative and sexual. Sometimes it is all of these at once.”
Wellington was born in Santa Monica, California, and raised in New York City’s Greenwich Village. He received a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and an MFA at the New York Academy of Art. Presently, he is an adjunct professor of art at the graduate program of the New York Academy of Art, where he teaches old master techniques of painting. On his website, he demonstrates, from start to finish, the creation of a still-life painting in the classical tradition.
Today, many talented artists are capable of such accomplished work. At the same time, Wellington’s oeuvre includes a bewildering, but interesting, cacophony of subjects and themes. Yet they all rely on his superb mastery of realism, which seems almost contradictory to the fantasy of his themes. Some of the paintings seem more like dreams, filled with objects that challenge the observer to unravel their meaning.
Usually, when reviewing an artist’s work, I concentrate on the aesthetic quality. I find it natural to focus on the timeless element, the timeless “truth” of a work of art. Aesthetics, or beauty, is a primary focus of artistic creativity and historical criticism. Ancient classical art and architecture were based on rules of proportion and harmony, fundamental properties of their religions, the Parthenon being the most perfect example. Aesthetics, in our contemporary culture, however, is regarded by intellectuals and the general public as “relative” or irrelevant. Beauty, some believe, exists only in the eye of the beholder. “Truth,” they claim, with ironic certainty, is “relative.” Wellington disagrees. This is why he teaches the principles of the old masters.
There are many references to classical icons in his paintings, but he mixes them up, as Giorgio de Chirico did. European modernists had different goals. They inherited a rich heritage of 2,500 years of cultural history. America has less cultural history to draw upon.
An important issue arises from Wellington’s oeuvre. As Immanuel Kant pointed out in his Critique of Pure Reason, subject matter and aesthetics (or beauty) are identifiably divisible during times when faith and religion are in decline. Kant was writing during the Enlightenment, when religion was in decline. Wellington is creating works of art during another time of change. Allan Bloom concurred in his book The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (Simon & Schuster, 1987). He writes: “There is one thing that a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.” Wellington believes in the aesthetic truth of art, though the narrative may be relative. He notes in his journal: “Although objects can have a specific purpose when seen on their own, as I paint, their meanings change. When all the different objects are placed together, a new story unfolds. Occasionally, the meanings are clear to me from the outset, but more often they evolve with the paintings.” The aesthetic experience remains true to the discerning eye.
Modernism once embraced aesthetics—“art for art’s sake”—as devoutly as the West once embraced Christianity. Postmodernism has sacrificed faith and beauty for political propaganda. Nietzsche predicted in The Birth of Tragedy (1872) that, without God, the West would embrace the abyss. Wellington may belong to a “lost” generation, but he has not embraced the abyss. His oeuvre, an eclectic mixture of themes, dreams and adventures, is a result of his personal journey to discover a new order. “Ever since I can remember,” he writes, “I have created my own world through drawing and painting. As a child, it was a way I could leave the real world for a while and have some control over the feelings I experienced. Today I still create worlds with my art, but now they reveal the many contradictory aspects of my hidden self.” It takes courage to travel this path.
When Wellington and I discussed our earliest influences, we were delighted to share fond memories of popular culture: motion pictures, comic books, radio serials, television and now the Internet. As children, we were both drawn to the bold graphics, mythology, narrative and aesthetics of popular culture. I am almost thirty years older than Wellington, and my recollections begin earlier, with the birth of comic books and (professional) sound cinema. There was a primal energy driving these genres that has rarely been equaled, even by the $100 million Hollywood epics of today. Compare the original King Kong (1933) with the half-dozen pallid remakes of the last eighty years.
One of Wellington’s finest paintings, which I have chosen not to reproduce here, is The Little Death (1993). Compositionally, narratively and figuratively, it is a classical work. Two nude female figures lie on a large rock jutting out into the calm waters of a lake. The “little death” of the title suggests the orgasmic sleep of the figure reclining in the hollowed space between several large rocks and boulders. She is covered by the dark shadow cast by the rocks above her, except for a sunlit leg extended into the foreground. Her right arm is draped along her right leg, and her left hand rests gently on her breast. The beautifully curved rocks nestle together like carefully planned pieces of a puzzle, although they appear to have rough and pointed edges. The second woman is stretched across the top of the rock as comfortably as if it were a divan. The figure in the shadows below is leaning toward the right side of the composition, while the figure resting above her is reclining toward the left. Her arm extends almost to the left edge of the painting. In the foreground, her fingers, draped over the edge of a large white rock, serve to frame the bottom part of the dark shadow that dominates the center of the composition and contains the figure of the sleeping woman. Without the thoughtful introduction of sunlight illuminating the whitish skin of her leg, the viewer’s eye would fall through the bottom of the canvas. Instead, it redirects the viewer’s eye back, full circle, to the top of the composition and the second woman sunbathing on top of the rock. Soft, grey-blue shadows along the distant shoreline tie the composition together holistically with the deep shadows in the hollow of stone. Not only beautifully rendered but thoughtfully composed, this narrative is at once pagan, classical and sexual.
Fallen Angel (2013) is drafted in a classical style, but its domain is also the dark side, as the title implies. This angel does not share the celestial cosmology of a Fra Angelico or a Botticelli, not even that of Hieronymus Bosch or Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment. This is a dystopian view of the underworld. The fallen angel basks in its evilness, whereas the Christian sinners in medieval art suffer wretchedly.
Wellington began his career working at a large advertising agency. Hired by Marvel Comic Books while still in his teens, he worked for decades as a cover artist and colorist. Wellington and I engaged in an animated discussion about censorship and the dark period of the 1950s, when E.C. Publishing and other publishers were banned by an Act of Congress, based upon questionable testimony by social and political pedagogues. It drove all forms of popular culture underground, eventually creating a counterculture movement. Some went to jail, while communists and fellow travelers such as the Hollywood Ten (creators of film noir) were blacklisted.
“Free Speech” and “First Amendment Rights” were used as defenses by the nefarious organizers of the recent “Draw Mohammed” contest in Texas. These were the same arguments used in the 1980s debates against me by constitutional scholar Floyd Abrams, National Endowment director John E. Frohnmayer and Kitty Carlisle Hart, chairman of the New York State Council on the Arts, in their defense of government-funded NEA grants to Robert Mapplethorpe, Andrés Serrano, David Wojnarowicz and Annie Sprinkle. Blacklisting during the great “witch hunt” of the 1950s was later extended to include motion pictures, television, theater, music, poetry and university curricula.
Wellington is a passionate film buff. Much of our discussion focused upon the high aesthetic quality of American filmmaking and how much filmmaking has in common with painting. His Come Nearer the Fire (2008) is an apocalyptic scene influenced by motion pictures, comic books, fine art and advertising. The painting depicts a smiling Asian girl kneeling in the rubble of a brick building in front of a burning water tower. Wellington explores several interpretations of this scene in his sketchbooks. One pen-and-ink sketch, So, You Thought You You Could Defeat the World (1997) depicts a winged Asian girl mounting the sky, holding aloft a sword. At the bottom of the sketch is lettered the caption “Life is like a real battle.” What is the meaning of the painting? Wellington showed me several detailed pencil studies of water towers observed from the window of his New York City studio. Free association? A political statement? Does it work as art? Does the figure integrate successfully with the background? Certainly, though not as successfully as the realistic figures do in The Little Death, a clearly classical painting. But Wellington is not pursuing art for its own sake. The meaning may be unclear, but so is a dream or a surreal painting by De Chirico.
Our discussions led me to a deeper appreciation of Wellington’s personal journey. His students are instructed to make copies of relevant works of art. Included in Wellington’s recent exhibition (April 2015, 184 Grand Street, New York City) was his excellent study of Arnold Böcklin’s masterpiece Isle of the Dead (1880). Böcklin painted five copies. The picture is usually included in exhibitions of German Romanticism, although the artist was born in Switzerland. Like much of nineteenth-century German art, this excellent composition seeks a meaning deeper than aesthetic beauty. (Unfortunately, the reputation of Isle of the Dead has been tarnished by the fact that it was Hitler’s favorite painting.) Caspar David Friedrich, often recognized as Germany’s greatest Romantic landscape painter, also subordinated aesthetic qualities in his yearning (sehen) for a higher spiritual plane beyond mere beauty or artistic excellence. This goal is shared by Wellington.
Wellington still reveres the order and craft of the old masters. The core curriculum for National Standards for the Visual Arts, published during the Clinton administration in 1993, rejects what Wellington is teaching. Too many teachers today, along with their allies and many scholars, embrace the criterion of political correctness. It takes enormous courage to seek another path. Realism is an important path, one that requires structured acquisition of craft and knowledge, especially in art education. American artists have become masters of the human figure, but they have difficulty integrating it into a cosmology. This challenge, of course, was understood during the previous two thousand years of Western civilization.
Wellington is wrestling with a challenge that confronts almost every American realist artist. The decline of Europe, with its mythology and religions, has left American artists adrift. Fortunately, popular culture reminds us that we are capable of creating an American narrative. The challenge today remains to create a new vision that will fill the vacuum in which we find ourselves. We cannot leave it to terrorists and nihilists to create a new cultural order.