Novatny’s most recent body of work is based on images of “portraits” from the past and the present and includes oil on canvas paintings and a salon style presentation of small works on paper. Novatny subverts the original intent of the portrait to portray a likeness of the person by altering and adulterating their faces to varying degrees of degradation.
The oil on canvas paintings are interpretations of historical images are from 18th and 19th century portrait paintings whose subjects were members of the aristocratic class. The apparel and settings of the subjects depicted in the paintings are emblematic of their status and privilege. With time many of the subjects portrayed prominence has diminished. Novatny’s ultimate renditions of these portraits take the subject even further into anonymity as they become ghosts from the past.
The images from the present are of photographs of public figures who represent a new form of a modern aristocracy. The identity of the portrait subject is obscured through a multi-layered process that begins by hand painting a “negative” of the original image onto mylar and ends several steps later by super-imposing a final layer of painted elements onto a unique photograph that further distorts the subject's image.
Novatny’s paintings are a tour de force of expertise wherein imagery is astonishingly rendered through a technique of smudging, imprinting and smearing oil paint with unconventional tools, such as plastic wrap, rubber gloves, and so on. The use of a narrow spectrum of color, relying on tonal fluctuation of rich black, white, grays and earth tones results in a dramatically mysterious and ghostly portrait.
"Brian Novatny... turns any standard for technique on its head. The Yale educated, Brooklyn-based artist was praised by the New York Times’s Roberta Smith for the technical prowess he showed in his 2011 drawing exhibition, “Picture FIshing.” His understanding of oil is radical — the paintings don’t even look like oils. He pushes paint around the canvas, bleeding, scraping, and feathering it to create an effect more akin to watercolor or a monoprint. ...silhouetted ghost ships tossed by stormy waves and obscured portraits of fictional officers — the works possess the hazy quality of early 19th-century photographs. ...the figures’ faces are treated with a refined, soft, blended hand, and then mutilated to obscure what could have been photorealistic perfection. Novatny uses paint to create the illusion of a photograph marred by time or disaster. ...capture violent, spontaneous energy that is to be applauded for emerging from a medium that requires incredible patience and time." BLOUIN ARTINFO Alanna Martinez, June 11, 2014
Novatny was born in Wadsworth, OH in 1964. He earned his BFA at the Columbus College of Art and Design in Columbus, OH in 1987 and his MFA at the Yale University School of Art in New Haven, CT in 1990. His work has appeared widely in solo and group shows in galleries and museums nationally and internationally including New York, New Orleans, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Boston, Richmond, St. Louis, Novi Sad, Serbia, Berlin, Frankfurt and Beijing among others. His work is in numerous museum collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, TN, the Knoxville Museum of Arts, TN, and the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. He currently lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.