Adventures Under Another Sun—Paintings by John Nativio

Art production has no native country, no capital city, no president, and only that one law about beauty and truth. I think about this as I round a rainy corner in heavy traffic, on a mission to see John Nativio’s profoundly beautiful, mysteriously truthful paintings. Those works seem to describe a distant corner of emotional/mathematical space, but they’re natives of the Kamm’s Corner neighborhood, on Cleveland’s storied (though somewhat staid) West side, at one end of a short suburban street. If otherworldly strains of beauty gather invisibly, escaped from his canvases into the corners of Nativio’s immaculate house, they co-exist with a sensible, realistic prosperity (Nativio certainly sells his paintings, but he’s also a contractor by trade). A generous cup of cappuccino he makes for me is a treat that speaks convincingly for the merits of the everyday, human world.

I’ve come to watch Nativio paint, and to ask him questions about his methods based on what I see him doing, increment by increment in the stop-motion of painterly process. We head to the garage, where he works during Cleveland’s warmer months. I arrived at noon, but I’m afraid I’ve delayed him. Most days he begins his slow dance with brush and color, tone and value, around 6AM. A white van is parked against the right-hand wall of the double-garage, while on the left, easels and work tables covered with paint tubes, brushes, rags, cups, and paint thinners compose their own landscape of latent activity. On one table, top-lit by a clip-on lamp, a strange little sculptural grouping is arranged, like the stage of a theater during rehearsals. Sculpted from Styrofoam packing components, the 3D composition I see is painted in hues of pale blue and mauve, orange, yellow, blue-green. Balanced between utility and pure aesthetic abstraction, it reads like a slice of landscape from another planet, or another dimension. Nativio has made painstaking oil studies on canvas of such maquettes for many years now, measuring the energies of color ratios against each other. He composes a kind of visual music in such paintings, with thematic passages and dynamic developments that knot and unwind across fictional space, rolling and floating through the gaps and crannies of intuitive, electrically-charged terrain.


Nativio dons blue plastic gloves like a second, interplanetary skin, and talks as he quickly hones the hues of a green orb, shaves away shadows and so tells time in a timeless world, outlining the prehistory of erosion, on whatever scale these actions and objects might have in relation to our own bodies and perceptual capacities. Microcosm, macrocosm, it’s anybody’s guess whether the artist discovers these forms at the end of time, or of space, or pressed deep beneath a flaring neuron, buried in the subatomic rocks and deserts of our own bodies. Nativio talks to me about the history of western art, of the power and incomparable presence of the figures and compositions of Michelangelo and Caravaggio, but soon switches to Marconi and the geophysical miracles of Earth’s ionosphere. There is an extraordinary, roller-coaster of cultural vision and scientific understanding going on, all of it leaving traces of color and shape, measuring an erotic, intellectual flow of energies and differences, of frequency and vibrato, of the fundamental elements of being.

He uses a firm brush with a slight angle-cut to quickly turn shades of burnt orange and blue up or down, searching for just the right ratio of warm to cool, of tension to repose, as if he were tuning a musical instrument. The colors and the shapes they inform become warmer or cooler as our hour together passes. Nativio’s brush moves along a neat row of paint blobs squeezed out on a wide sheet of paper, then flicks the bristles across the canvas. The green orb appears to float closer, away from a burnt orange geometric structure, draping its shadow over a slanting rectangular bridge. There are no names for the objects and surfaces, the horizons that Nativio paints. Like a space probe, he renders a view that eyes have never seen, not part of Adam’s catalogue of places and things. If as Leviticus says “there is nothing new under the sun,” I still wonder if there might not be something new here. On the canvas, I see a ‘scape beginning to emerge that has more in common with a fugue-driven melody than with ordinary categories of language or geography. Farther back in the garage a triptych that may be finished, or close to finished (Nativio often works for months on a single canvas) shows a similar orb, glimpsed at three different stages as it threads its way in and out of the blues and greens of a Plutonian world. I think the sphere is a theme that can be read as almost Christological in presence, much like the opening notes of a Passion. In the first panel, an orange planet (let’s call it) emerges from a circular space, as if from its mold or cocoon; light from a dim sun plays across its burnished skin. In the second, larger middle canvas it floats between two gigantic-seeming blue shapes, pierced with huge circular spaces, in a rich green sky. Below in one corner a green orb is cradled in a shady lavender niche. At last, in the third, square canvas, another planet-orb (this one is purple) begins to set behind the lip of another massive, nearly rococo, curving and curling wall of blue, passing into the green sky behind. There’s a plotted structure in this arrangement, a tale or a series of events like musical events, striking the mind at odd angles, suggesting quest and resolution—the essential structures of drama, of learning, of revelation.

The paintings Nativio is composing today will be shown later this year at Trudy Wiesenberger Gallery, located in University Hospitals of Cleveland Medical Center, 11100 Euclid Avenue, on Cleveland’s East side. I’m anxious to see how far John Nativio can extend these strands of tone and form, tightening them in an age-old weft of adventure and redemption. And I wonder where, to what side of what age or world, they’ll venture.

Trudy Wiesenberger Gallery

University Hospitals

11100 Euclid Ave