Joseph McNamara

Joseph McNamara is an American painter and photographer known for his
penetrating depictions of human industry’s engagement with the landscape and
compositional diligence.

His paintings, which are notable for their meticulous detail and can take months or
even years to complete, are characterized by their expansive scope as much as their
precision and are composed of a fused sequence of visual observations. 

Based in New York City since 1972, where he has also painted numerous urban
representations, figures, portraits and still lifes, McNamara has in addition traveled
extensively, accumulating a substantial archive of imagery to use as reference for his
paintings.

Some works are available and McNamara undertakes carefully selected commissions at various times of the year. In order to seek clarification about how this works and the correct procedures involved, please use the contact form provided to make your enquiry. Prices on request.

THE UNSEEN SOUL OF THE REAL: ON JOSEPH McNAMARA

by Peter Campion 2006

During the winter of 1988, Joseph McNamara often walked along 57th Street between Park and Lexington Avenues, where the construction site for the Four Seasons Hotel carved a huge chunk from the cityscape. Looking down into the foundation, he would say to himself, “There’s a painting there.” In fact, it was not just a painting he sensed, but a whole new approach. The breakthrough came one morning when a thin layer of snow covered the site. The almost alien appearance of the familiar scene excited McNamara: “I said ‘that’s it, that’s it.’ That was when I finally came to my own language.” Ever since, he’s been painting what he calls Technoscapes, canvases which contain all the hyper-reality of modern America, yet reveal a beguiling formal life apart from what they represent.

McNamara had always felt the urge to combine representational images with abstract design. Even as a kid he loved the architectural fantasies and futuristic communities of the pulp magazine illustrator Frank R. Paul, that he first saw in Forrest J. Ackerman’s SPACEMAN magazine and in comics drawn by Jack Kirby. His fascination carried over into later life. You can see it in the painting McNamara eventually made of that winter scene, “Four Seasons Hotel Building Foundation” (1991.) Contained within the firm geometry of the composition, the image has all the clarity and heft of literal reality. Yet the painting trembles. The subtle contrast of hues on the snow-covered pile of planks at the right, and the wet sequence of browns against the reinforcing wire at the center have a quickness and vivacity all their own. The painting not only reproduces but creates that moment when an everyday sight becomes suddenly strange and fresh. This is what makes McNamara such a crucial link in the long chain of American realist painters. For all the detail in his pictures, for all the technical precision his approach requires of him, he remains open to intuition. He stays alert to where the process itself may lead him.

After all, only an artist with a deep commitment to process would say that he found his own language at a time when, in fact, he had already inhabited two fully mature and compelling styles. The first was his series of figure paintings from the seventies and eighties. With their extreme detail and their up-front treatment of their subjects, these canvases suggest a connection to the leading painters of the day, especially Chuck Close and Al Leslie. McNamara does acknowledge affinities with those artists. Like them, he makes no bones about using photographs. In a letter to me he explains: “art intersects with the artist’s life, and as I take my subject matter from my life, how could I deny the influence of the photographic image, or the cinematic image, or the TV?”

But McNamara’s line of influence stretches much farther back. As a kid from Somerville, Massachusetts, he wandered unchaperoned around Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts on Saturdays after his art class. There he discovered the great American Realists such as Eakins, Ryder and Hopper. Even at age nine he could sense the defiant honesty and roughness of their approach, the sense of a pioneering spirit in their paintings. As a young artist he became fascinated with painters of the Precisionist movement (1915-41.) He admired the lucid way they captured the geometric forms of the Machine Age, the grain elevators and steel bridges, the factories and crankshafts. But looking particularly at painters like Edwin Dickinson, Walter Murch, and Charles Sheeler, he also recognized the intangible element in their pictures, what Sheeler himself once called the “unseen soul” of the American landscape.

It was this felt knowledge of a tradition that informed McNamara’s work with the figure. “Graveyard Shift,” for example, which he painted in 1973 seems an American adaptation of Rembrandt’s “Night Watch.” While the motif suggests the old master’s painting, the florescent glow conveys the feeling of a modern city at night. There’s also the mystery of who these men are and what they do, that uniquely American feeling of untold narratives trailing out behind the immediate surface of the scene. McNamara’s engagement with modern realities comes across in his portrait of Elliot Richardson, the Attorney General who famously refused to fire Watergate special prosecutor, Archibald Cox. Originally, the painting was commissioned by Time for their cover. McNamara’s friend and neighbor, the art critic Robert Hughes, helped him to land the gig. But when the Yom Kippur War began and knocked Watergate from the headlines, the editors took the painting off the cover. It was a disappointment, no doubt. But the portrait remains striking in and of itself. The sheer solidness of the picture, intensified by the portentous shadow of Richard Nixon, balances against a subtle, almost liquid interplay of hues on the lenses of Richardson’s glasses and along his hair.

McNamara further developed this quiet liveliness of detail in the mid eighties as he began his second mature series, his still-lifes. These paintings give off a feeling of formal challenges exquisitely overcome. The drops of water flecking the tabletop and knife in “Blade,” for instance, lend a captivating subtlety to the picture. In “Birds of Paradise,” the decay of flowers provides a surprising variety of colors and textures.

The still-lifes formed a fully achieved body of work. But, with his characteristic restlessness, McNamara wanted something new. It was around this time that he saw the snow at the Four Seasons construction site, and began working on the Technoscapes, which he continues painting to this day. One reason that these paintings have been so rewarding is that their content corresponds with McNamara’s actual method. As he did before, he employs photographs to make these paintings, as well as a grid on the painting surface (though he never projects the image.) And with the Technoscapes the grid is not simply a means to an end: it’s an integral part what the pictures are about. Talking to me in his Chelsea studio, he explained: “My subject matter must have some sort of continuity. So my belief is that the process of making order out of chaos is a metaphor for the creative act. Using the grid can make order out of the most chaotic situation, and the Technoscape images are all making order out of chaos in some form or another. What’s more seemingly disordered than a construction site? But what is the result?”

Looking at a painting like “The High Line (Unfinished),” you can see what McNamara means. The El, which curves across the center of the composition, frames the receding view of city buildings. To right, where the stanchions come at closer intervals, the buildings appear simply as shapes and colors. But in the foreground at the left, where we’re given a wider frame, the buildings cut clear outlines, their distinct shapes appearing in delineated fields of color. If McNamara uses a grid to build this painting, so the picture itself suggests how our will to order both divides and gathers together at the same time: how it breaks an image down into its constituent parts, even while assembling those parts into a pleasing whole.

That process is certainly at work in “Midway Sunset Oilfield, Tate, CA.” The white and beige of the shacks and the oil drums, as well as the browns of the dirt and sand, are so close in value. Yet McNamara’s precision holds them together so that each fulfills its separate potential, at the same time that each contributes to the picture. Or consider “Houston Interchange 145 at Beltway.” To examine the roads alone is to see a sequence of grays, whites, and yellows shifting in their own dynamic “interchange,” as do the various greens farther back in the picture. Still, the painting maintains its immediate, intense reality.

And doesn’t this transit between the abstract and the real lead us back to McNamara’s subject matter? Hardly “scenic” in the usual sense, his Technoscapes present those sections of our landscape that may seem the most fallen apart, the most random. But they’re also where everything begins, where sheer material verges into the man-made and back again. This is what Sheeler meant by the “unseen soul of the real.” The objects and scenes of industrial America in McNamara’s paintings all reveal the imprint of human will. They’re forms that have evolved out of human desire and necessity. Far from merely depicting this process, McNamara embodies it. His paintings both represent and give triumphant shape to our fundamental urge to create.

>>Footnote from J. Mc.<<: This essay was written as the introduction to a catalog of my paintings and although I’ll admit to dreaming up the word ‘Technoscape’, as soon as I saw it in print — I hated it! Now I only use the term as a last resort when I’m trying to describe what I do for a living to a fellow traveller in an airport bar or similar situation.

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