John Devaney -Fall 2008
by: Joshua B. Gray
photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger
John Devaney is a painter of gestures: the gestures and movements of figures, whether they are the inanimate formations found in the landscape, or the distinctive attributes of the human form.
There are emotional elements to Devaney’s work as well. One that is expressed in color, color that sometimes, the artist said, he fears is too dark. His worry is that it is something innate, something that is a part of him, something that will stay with his art.
Then, it is also expressed in form and shape and how they relate to their environment. As an artist who has spent significant amounts of time painting objects and living beings under the water, and who regularly incorporates the fanciful and iconic into his oil paintings, Devaney is an artist with a unique perspective and a memorable presentation.
If there is any sort of balance in his work, it is his own. His paintings are the result of how he identifies with the world around him, his subjective viewpoint and his own nervous system at play, he said.
“I am a figurative painter, first of all. My work has become about the interaction between landscape and the figure. It’s never just a landscape or a portrait, it’s as if bodies and the landscape affect each other.”
The evidence of this interaction throughout the body of Devaney’s prolific work is abundant.
Hanging in his Nantucket studio, an open space that at one time could have been a garage but now has a loft, several desks and pieces of furniture among the many finished and in-progress works of art, is a painting of Nantucket that Devaney continues to perfect.
It depicts Main Street with the red-brick Pacific Bank looming at its center and the edges composed of wide brick sidewalks and their day-to-day goings-on. An artist with his easel paints on one side of the cobblestone street, and a delivery truck waits idling on the other. These aspects literally weigh down the image. They appear to pull the street down to a level beneath the rest of the landscape. A somewhat futuristic car is also depicted in the scene as it turns onto Centre Street. These elements are an example of what this artist captures for himself in a given moment.
“In a passing crowd you capture only the gestures or elements of a person,” said Devaney. “I have tried to take those quick semaphores of what is passing by me. The consciousness is never ceasing in the process of painting. Figures emerge that weren’t even there. It is a kind of spontaneous emergence of new figures and partial figures. This is something that the abstract painters celebrated, the accident or the things that just happened. That inspiration is part of the miracle of the process of opening up to your subconscious.”
Formally educated in the arts, Devaney holds a master’s degree and has in years past taught at Harvard University and the Boston Museum School.
Married to journalist and actress Sandy MacDonald, the couple have one daughter, Laurel Devaney, also an actress who lives and works in New York City and Nantucket. Devaney and MacDonald also split their time between the Big Apple, Nantucket and Boston.
Devaney, a long-time actor himself, first came to Nantucket from Cambridge, Mass. more than 20 years ago to star in the now-defunct Actors Theatre of Nantucket production of “Beyond Therapy” by Christopher Durang.
Finding he wanted to stay on the island after completing his first production, Devaney made the decision to return to Nantucket in the summers and continue to pursue his interest in acting. He said these many years later he continues to enjoy acting, and usually participates in at least one play on Nantucket each year.
But above all, he said, he is a painter.
“Since I was young there has never been a time when art was not my main passion,” Devaney said.
Influences that have affected the artist’s style and helped form his presentation are numerous. Beginning with one of his college professors who gave him a great love for drawing and an appreciation for painting the human figure, Devaney said after a lifetime of painting there are more than 500 artists whose work he has come to admire. From the classical Dutch masters to the Ashcan School of work in turn-of-the-20th-century New York, these artists have furthered his understanding of movement and fluidity upon the canvas.
Though his painterly style and viewpoint have changed little over the years, his choice of subject has seen an evolutionary process though, he said, many times he will return to subjects he has visited before. With a baseline of the figure as his muse, the environment surrounding his subject is ever-changing.
“There are some things that have been cooking in me all my life and never go away. There are stopping points throughout my work,” said Devaney. “Swimmers grab me and in a pool you can pose people in a way that you could never in an environment rich with gravity.”
The artist’s work over the past 15 years has featured many scenes beneath the surface of the water, from swimming pigs to human subjects posed submerged. Devaney has spent years exploring this distinct presentation of art.
Nantucket and its beaches have also been and continue to be one of his muses, said Devaney, adding that he can’t imagine a time when he won’t paint it. Most recently the artist has spent a winter in New York City exploring the figures and the many motions of the city that never sleeps. With his trademark style of perception, Devaney has created a series of works that graphically explore known landmarks such as Grand Central Terminal and the Plaza Hotel, also illustrating the distinct lines found on a city block of brick townhouses.
A show of his most recent pieces opened the last week of August at the South Wharf Gallery on Nantucket, and will remain up through early September.
“John Devaney’s love of drawing the figure inspires his paintings of the human parade. His scenes of everyday life on the island and in the city teem with an infinite variety of beings – both mythical and familiar, dark and comical,” said Mary Beth Splaine, owner of the India Street gallery. “His ability to catch the character of a figure in motion is uncanny. The longer you look at a Devaney painting the more there is to see and understand. They are teeming with life.”
As his subjects change, said Devaney, emotional devices are used to complement his scenes.
“Paintings always have dark and light, at least that is my hope. They have emotional extremes that juxtapose – the dark with the humorous and the mythical with the everyday. It reflects what goes on in my mind.”
Throughout Devaney’s body of work, another subjectively emotive element is found: the artist’s use of archetypal images. Look at any of his paintings and one is likely to discover that it contains his dog, Jasmine; or a pear; or a head of broccoli; the Steamship Authority’s car-ferry Eagle; or Devaney himself.
Each of these objects represents different things to him and resembles characters as if in a novel, he said. Some are simple, such as the beauty he finds in the shape of broccoli or a pear, or what he sees as the mythical qualities of the lines of the Eagle, while others represent a more personal context.
But he is not alone in this seemingly eccentric practice, said Devaney, as through the ages some of the most well-known in the art world have had similar fixations with certain objects, including Rembrandt and Holbein.
As complex as the artist’s vision for his work is, his process is seemingly typical. As with most passionate about what they do, Devaney said he is driven to draw constantly. Many of his pieces begin with drawing, he said. During his winter in New York, many of his days were spent sketching, whether it was on the subway or on a busy street, his mind always working on another painting. The painting, he added, normally takes place wherever he has a good set-up such as his New York apartment or his studio on Nantucket. Other times, he said he will begin with a lot of color on a canvas, as if beginning with an empty room.
In the future, Devaney looks forward to continuing his series on New York, but as always, is open to the inspiration of the moment.
Joshua B. Gray is an editorial assistant and a writer at The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.