The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


Painter crafts stunning depictions of disaster

Thursday, March 12, 2015

By Felicia Feaster - For the AJC


Brian Novatny paints devastatingly beautiful images of destruction. His paintings on view at Marcia Wood Gallery in Castleberry Hill recall 19th century works by the likes of Romantic master J.M.W. Turner of seafaring disasters.

Putting a contemporary spin on that historic legacy, Novatny’s skillful, evocative paintings are about devastation and ruin. But they are also about painting itself, alerting viewers to the virtuosic hand of the artist in creating these fictions.


This Yale-educated, Brooklyn-based painter takes on the classic painterly theme of the shipwreck, offering up existential glimpses into mortality’s great void. Where historical paintings often depicted actual maritime disasters, Novatny’s works are metaphorical renditions of inescapable tragedy and ruin on an epic scale. Though the sinking of enormous sailing vessels no longer looms large over the human imagination, contemporary viewers can certainly relate to Novatny’s world disastrously out of balance and peer into oblivion. Novatny’s storms and keening boats take on supernatural elements, as they teeter over enormous cliffs of water or seem to have their mast and sails willfully dismantled by malevolent waves and storm clouds. His ships are helpless vessels consumed by a merciless, relentless collision of waves, rain and wind.

In Novatny’s paintings the masts on his hulking wooden ships break like toothpicks, their sails tattered remnants and enormous hulls defeated by a collusion of natural tempests. In the oil on panel work “Overturned,” a huge vessel plunges backwards into the sea, its bow rising up like a hand-raised in agony from the churning sea before being swallowed up. In the genuinely frightening “An Errant Wave” a ship teeters—mid-destruction—on the edge of an enormous cliff-like wave that carries it toward its inevitable end. Overhead storm clouds dump ghastly payloads of water onto the ship below. Novatny’s diabolical brushstrokes and mark-making convey the nightmarish churning of waves and whirlpools swirling beneath his doomed vessels. Nature becomes sentient, malevolent even, as clouds and waves conspire to ruin these ships. Vivid realism is part of Novatny’s skill set, along with telltale signs of the artist’s hand like the drips of pigment in “An Errant Wave”’s upper-right corner that betray his presence. Exquisite technique is on view again in “Frigid Waters” where silvery swells and whitecaps are so vividly painted, the water looks like the negative image of a photograph.

Just as Romanticism’s oil paintings showed the certainty of a terrible death when a ship began to sink on the high seas, Novatny’s paintings offer little doubt of what is in store. Though they reference the past, they also have a contemporary, at times even special effects inflected dimension. In “Boatswain” it’s as if Novatny has captured a boat’s destruction in mid-explosion. One of the few works to combine colors, the sepia-colored ship’s annihilation is conveyed in steel-grey shards of mast and matter that come hurling toward us.


Novatny’s painting technique is masterly. He most often uses just one color in his paintings on board or canvas, building it up to a deep, opaque black or smearing and shaping it into vaporous, churning silver waves. Paintings and drawings tend to fluctuate between an aged, varnished brown and a silvery India-ink blue.

Novatny’ use of a limited but psychologically rich color palette gives his paintings their immediacy and heft.

Art Review

“Brian Novatny: Lost and Found”

Bottom line: A gorgeous painting show equal parts wonderful technique and thrilling content.