Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Drawings of Bruce New: We Don't Know What Love Is

This image is a recent drawing from Bruce New's large body of work on paper. Call it a drawing with collage elements or vice versa; New doesn't care about nomenclature. Note the pages of old books, browned with age, used as surface; the cut-out texts that lend gray tones to figures, and the pedestal, meticulously assembled (as they always are in his work) of lines from antique history or art books. New considers himself to be "sort of limited in drawing ability," so the severe geometry of his drawings results from the use of drafting tools, manual aids for someone who, presumably, "can't even draw a straight line."  

See a large selection of New's current, related work at .

Outsider in the 21st Century Hollow

When an artist refers me to his website and then tells me outright that he is an "outsider/folk/visionary artist," I'm disconcerted. Skeptical. New's biography, on the one hand, fulfills classic expectations of the folk or naive artist. He's 41 years old and lives with his wife, Robin, in a hollow near Burnside, Kentucky. He dropped out of school at 18 to take a job with a construction crew, moving to Houston to renovate hotels while his buddies went to college. When I recently spoke with New on the telephone, I had to quash my urge to wince every time his good manners required him to call me "Ma'am."

New worked by himself with paper and ink for fifteen years before he considered art his vocation: "One day I looked at what I was doing and realized that this is me," he told Duff Lindsay in 2010, when Lindsay introduced New to the public at his respected folk and outsider gallery in Columbus, Ohio  (

Still, there's almost as much about New that contradicts any traditional ("obsolete," Lindsay argues) idea of the outsider. He may lack a high school diploma, but he has been an ardent book collector since early childhood. His house is packed with books, many of them rare. "I have a great library," he assents. It's not only for chopping up; he reads it.

As for being naive, he's the first to dismiss the idea. "Even in the hollows, everyone's got television, internet, and texting. I've read everything about art, especially contemporary artists. It's not like I'm isolated that way."

If he's not Grandma Moses, Henry Darger in his little room, or a schizophrenic locked up in an asylum, what does it mean to be a twenty-first century "outsider," with cell phone and up-to-date awareness of international trends in art?

Limited and repetitious content can characterize outsider art and make us think the artist obsessive, or limited by an unnecessarily constricted world-views, or blocked in thought processes—the sort that turn viewers into nickel psychiatrists. 

It should occur to us that "outsider" may be a genuine point of view, one that may be direct without being naive. In New's case, an artist sophisticated enough to understand the range of alternative ways to express himself visually has actively embraced an "outside" position. For New, his native, genuine point of view looks like the outsider style. He may have chosen it unconsciously, but he's found the best way to express his preoccupation: the love he bears for his wife and for their domestic happiness.

That New’s work is amorous and idyllic may not be what first occurs to viewers of his highly geometrical, mysteriously symbolic drawings. Where is the softness; where are the curves, the smiles, the tenderness, the sense of yielding that are hallmark expressions of love? Instead, the artist has created a symbolic world filled with space-age blackbirds, centaurs, thunderbirds, sphinxes, and mythic or super- humanoids with triangular shoulders, narrow hips, and ringed, target-like eyes. “Romantic” is not the word that leaps to mind.

Yet New told Lindsay last year that, “All the birds, anything with flight you see in my work, are Robin.” The skies of his drawings are alive with birds. If those birds— however geometrical, two-dimensional, or stylized their forms—are the beloved Robin, then they define, simply, how love looks in New’s universe. 

Love is Patient, Love is Kind

New's work is not for impatient viewers. Unless we linger over each piece; unless we deliberately and patiently trace the shifts and rearrangements in his figures and their details, we'll miss not only the statements of love, but their special quality.

Because New's artistic vocabulary at first appears to be impenetrably personal,  there's an impulse to approach the drawings like  hieroglyphic texts, to try to "read" them symbol by symbol, as a series of coded messages that will yield statements. New makes no claim to work programmatically, nor to produce art that can be deciphered. “I don’t even know what they mean,” he told me. “It makes itself through me.” These are statement that artists working in all styles and any media would make.

As far as interpretation goes, New just hopes that viewers will understand that all of his work is “made with love.” He hopes that we will understand that it’s about “love and dreams,” that it’s “sweet and kind.”


Viewers still baffled by the black silhouettes, the unsmiling figures, the horns, spears, and temple-rockets are overlooking the deliberate, subtle dynamic of New’s work. New’s model of love—the love we know exists if only in the multitude of flying things—is of something that requires time, attention, and care. No two of these exquisite works are alike. Only the hasty observer would consider them similar; the connoisseur—the lover—would not. That the imagery repeats itself with subtle changes has everything to do with love’s caressing, doting impulse; with the lover’s instincts to adore and to rehearse the beloved's features, and to savor the satisfaction evoked by the very imagination of his love.

Once we think about New’s work in terms of this process, we begin to see more deeply into his imagery. For instance, it's loaded with traditional tools for measuring and building. Whenever he uses hatching along the side of a form to suggest a third dimension, the  marks follow a pattern of varying lengths, as an inch is subdivided along a ruler’s edge. Likewise, the two long, pointed, and footless legs on which all his figures balance form compass arms (like the one undoubtedly used to draw circles all over his pages, the moons and suns and eyes). A form that New uses to represent wings is also that of a plane—the wedged carpenter’s tool—the full end of which is a two-lobed shape—which in turn becomes an asymmetrical heart. The imagery comes from craft, careful and time-consuming; of work done with the hands, of labor done mindful of detail, executed lovingly.

New’s toolbox supplies the architect and builder too. His collages are filled with houses. They fly, they sprout from people’s heads (they are "on the mind");  they form hats with bright ideas. All the houses are  tall with symmetrical wings or buttresses that flank a central tower. The towers suggest cathedrals or castles, those exalted ideas of home as the sacred, private, protective domain. Home is the source of energy too. Sometimes houses appear as rocket ships, tall and pointed, with boosters—sometimes even with wings—attached in case they take off in the skies so busy with zooming creatures and objects. New even provides a navigational tool when he fashions the sun as a compass roses, with rays of different lengths, halved and shaded.

New offered explanations of two details that I'm not sure I'd have grasped on my own. The skull so prominent in his work is a simple memento mori, a reminder of life's sweetness in view of its brevity. The number 13, and its mirror image, 31? He explains that because no one wants the unlucky number, he adopted the poor waif and gave it a home since it's a misfit too. Now that is sweet.

Forever After

Love is represented in New's drawings as domestic, steady, and enduring. It's the source of both creative energy and emotional stability. Love is constructed deliberately. It's carefully maintained so it will last forever. Because love is thus firmly founded, it's liberating—it frees the imagination and lightens the heart.

Finally, New's drawings aren't simply paeans directed one way, from a husband to his to wife. They are loving transactions between husband and wife. Were his works only directed from him to her, then they would come closer to showing the characteristics we associate with obsession. New, however, is always changing his work, inventing and exploring new expression within his world. As in the drawing above, He gazes into Her eyes and She gazes back. This is the work of someone who loves and who feels loved in return. It documents the sweetness of giving and receiving love.

New knows  what he is doing. It's fair to say that he makes outsider art—I can't think of anything that better describes his drawings or thinking that informs them. The twist is that we, his viewers, are the outsiders. Only by emulating the slow, detailed, and attentive processes of the artist himself can we begin to approach the beautiful, private interior or the intimate quality of the love he shares at home, with Robin.

All photographs are copyright, Bruce New, kindly supplied by the artist, and are used with his permission.

1 comment:

  1. Starr Review took me by the hand and with patience introduced me to the work of Bruce New. His work rewards patience, and Ann Starr's meticulous reviewing talent will have me returning for another lesson.