We've been on a little bit of a hiatus here at Arteaser, so thanks for sticking around. I met up with John Wentz at the Palace Hotel some time ago, where we bonded over Donald in Mathmagic Land and I got the story behind his "Adaptive Radiation" series.
Some might argue that science and religion do not mix, but they do have something in common - they both tackle big questions, albeit in very different ways. For John Wentz, both modes of thought were influential to his art as he grew up in the East Bay, attending Catholic school:
"When I was growing up, my mom [...] went to nursing school in Fremont, but we didn't have a lot of money and she couldn't afford day care, so she took me with her and she would give me her anatomy books to draw to keep me busy"
While drawing from anatomy books may have been a more subtle driver, Wentz recalls comic books as a conscious source of inspiration to draw. Although he did not realize it at the time, the comic book stories had a spiritual appeal:
"First thing I remember was drawing [...] I remember my first two comic books were Spiderman #6 and Batman #4, and that just really sparked [my interest in] drawing. [...] Comic books kind of served that side of me, that religious side"
After graduating high school, Wentz lived a transient life for a couple years, but was always drawing. Fascinated by questions of faith and spirituality, he considered pursuing a religious life, but came to other conclusions:
"I actually wanted to be a priest for a while - I went back to that, the religious thing - I wanted to be a Buddhist monk... Then I wound up studying world religion and [...] I realized that role of comic books, how they kind of serve in a lot of ways that function. They have the same archetypes as you find in any great hero myth [...] I realized it was a modern day mythology"
Eventually, Wentz decided to pursue a degree at the Academy of Art after seeing a friend's progress. Ever the rebel, he quickly learned that his first choice of majoring in Illustration was not for him and switched to Fine Art:
"To me at that point it was like, 'Oh, somebody telling me what to do? No, I don't want to do that.' It was that simplified for me so I immediately switched over to Fine Art"
Traditionally a pen and ink draftsman, Wentz first began painting while working at Tower Records, where he air-brushed album cover posters in large scale. While at the Academy, his instruction was in more traditional oil painting and after graduating he regularly sold his work. But before long, Wentz had another crisis of faith, as it were, and temporarily ceased to paint. A chronic insomniac, Wentz eventually saw a documentary on late night television on the Caves of Lascaux:
"Looking at this cave art - which was completely beautiful - in an area that probably at that time you risked death going in there to see, let alone make that art, [I couldn't help but start] thinking about who they were making it for, why they were making it, what compelled them to make it... There didn't seem any hesitance in it, but they were risking life and limb"
Meanwhile, Wentz had been reading Carl Jung and found his ideas about archetypes the collective unconsciousness very interesting with regard to the common experience he had observed between religion and comic books. Finally, Wentz had an epiphany while observing the chronic chatting, texting, and tweeting of his fellow San Franciscans:
"The essence is communication. We did it back then [with the cave drawings], we did it before language and now we're still finding ways to communicate. No matter what kind of technology springs up, we find a way to communicate through it. So that coupled with the Jung book just brought me back to comic books"
Having restored his faith in painting through a combination of cave drawings, psychology readings, and communication habits, Wentz began work on a series of paintings exploring comic book archetypes:
"The first paintings I did in the series were very illustrative of [Jung's concept of a mythological vocabulary]"
Using familiar comic characters, Wentz combines the comic style and realism. He used his adolescent nephew as the primary non-comic subject, representing familiar coming-of-age challenges:
"He turns to video games. When I was a kid I turned to comic books [...] So it was a nice contrast: it was dialogue between our childhoods, it was a dialogue between realism and pop art or realism and comic art. But it didn't make sense [if I put it in a specific landscape]. I wanted it to be a dialogue between just the two of them"
Like the cave drawings on stark, rocky surfaces, Wentz orients his subjects on largely blank, white surface to keep attention on the dialogue. On this approach, he was influenced by the golden backgrounds in Byzantine art, seen on a trip to Italy:
"The environment is all gold and the idea behind that was to tell the viewer that these figures were in a spiritual realm [...] If I put them in this all white background, that would maybe also hint that this is in a psychological realm, this isn't a real place. This isn't even a comic book. It's a blank slate"
The Byzantines' use of sacred geometry was also influential, particularly as Wentz began to move from the smaller, graphite early pieces to larger paintings with greater compositional demands. Technically, he had first encountered the idea in childhood watching Disney's Donald in Mathmagic Land, but recalled the concepts while teaching an anatomy class for the Academy, which included using the Golden Ratio:
"I started thinking about anatomy, [and asking], 'Well, what's the anatomy of a painting?' If I could strip off the flesh and the muscles, we have the skeleton - that's our foundation [...] Where would [compositional elements] be located? That got me back into sacred geometry"
That sacred geometry had historically been seen as a means higher powers meant that it solved not only an aesthetic question of composition, but also fit with his mythological themes. Wentz began plotting the shapes that echoed the shapes of the figures in the piece:
"What I wanted them to at least kind of look like, if not represent, would be mythological stories. Like something you would see in a cave or would see inside a pyramid, where you just see these characters on a black space interacting with each other, that has some kind of meaning to it [...] There is a formula to this hero story, to the myth"
Keep watching the Arteaser Calendar for future shows featuring John Wentz.