Ship’s Log

Born in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1974, Joshua von Nonn grew up in a two household family where he shuttled between his cardiologist father’s spare, efficiently run home and his photographer mother’s house on the water in Buzzard’s Bay, a blur of activity animated by her energy and the comings and goings of her artist friends.

Dr. Richard Goldstein took pains to instill a respect for great books, education and self-improvement – with evening entertainment provided by Brahms, Masterpiece Theater and Red Sox and Patriots games annotated by his own erudite commentary.

A few miles away, Jayne Nonn kept a home that mirrored her kinetic personality in bold colors – a place where spontaneity ruled, a stuffed armadillo stared down an unfinished NC Wyeth painting, and a tentative tribe of artists and writers in Buzzard’s Bay found community.

In what was perhaps an early effort to synthesize these contrasting influences, Josh discovered a love for mechanical drafting in high school, his first sustained effort at making pictures, a habit that was soon supplemented by carpentry and mechanical work.

A decision to enter college for Architecture seemed like a natural culmination of these interests but a chance encounter with an Anthony Burgess book – a non-fiction story about an eccentric professor of linguistics – restored a fascination with language and literature which helped derail his architectural aspirations. The Penguin edition paperback inspired Josh to have a serious go at reading as many of the Penguin Classics series as possible – from Vonnegut to the Iliad – and the experience pulled him deeper into a conviction that stories and art were integral to his life search. Another hint arrived when Josh wandered into the MOMA in DC after completing a drawing assignment and was confronted with a massive Chuck Close self-portrait – composed from an intricate matrix of thumb prints – that commanded his attention for nearly an hour and sent him hurrying to the library to learn more about Close and his peers.

Still, as a career choice, science and engineering won out and Josh ended up working as a field engineer working on large civil & commercial construction projects in Boston.

The engineering career proved to be financially rewarding but emotionally and creatively suffocating. An injury that interrupted Josh’s ability to work – ironically on an extension to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts – brought certain existential and practical questions into focus. He decided he was done not just with engineering but with any kind of career that provided a nice paycheck at the cost of boredom and a nagging emptiness. Fortunately, it wasn’t long after this troubling realization that painter friend Todd Lim provided a friendly shove in a new direction by literally putting canvas, acrylic paints and an unassembled frame into Josh’s hands with one piece of advice: the only wrong way to do this is to not do it. Lim showed Josh how to stretch canvas and within a few days he was in full gallop pursuit of a breakthrough: painting and making art mattered in a way that making money alone did not.

His first painting was of – or more accurately, about – his Father: aka “The Nazz”, aka Dr. Richard Goldstein, who passed away in 1997. “About” rather than “of” because The Nazz was conjured into a setting that Dr. Goldstein would hardly recognize: an abstract pictorial space layered with Pop colors, forms and writing alternately submerged and surfacing, all ruled by the central figure whose presence is powerful but mysteriously unfinished, still emerging. The next few paintings came in a burst, taking up other subject matter – mainly writers and musicians whose work Josh admired – and extended the sense he had that painting offered a new way of living in which things of value to him could be placed not just into the canvas, but into the center of his everyday life. The experience of painting allowed for the re-discovery, contemplation and expansion of things both within himself and in the world – personal changes, literary connections, stray bits of conversation and humor – that would otherwise go unnoticed and unrecorded.

From the start painting for Josh was a weapon to fight forgetfulness, a way to rescue the past from oblivion by making memory material, summoning the past viscerally back into the stream of life in new and unplanned ways. More than just a form of self-expression, painting seemed to Josh to offer a formal method for seizing the moment: moments long past, moments slipping by, moments to come. But unlike portraits or statues which attempt to immortalize and idealize their subjects, in Josh’s paintings memory manifests as fragmentary figures, words, forms and tones which enter and thicken the canvas in an open-ended conversation occurring in past, present and future tenses simultaneously.

Watching Josh paint, you’re immediately struck by how quickly the look of a piece can change, how seemingly unafraid he is to paint over forms that only took shape days or hours ago. Not satisfied with a result that seems merely good, or that other people like, Josh pushes on, risking the good and the likable, until the dialectic of paint-then-paint-over reaches a crisis point where the whole thing seems palpably wrong, unrealized. That moment ups the stakes and sets the stage for a confrontation where what happens next finally matters enough – where Josh can now find out whether this piece will be worth anything to him. The impasse could grind on long enough to divert his attention to other works, but when the built up static electricity rumbles to a spark and there’s enough energy to overcome the standoff, a real cathexis transpires and the painting is invested with all the feeling and meanings latent in that struggle and its resolution. The painting may still be about other things as well, and it may carry over many of the elements that were there before, but it now conducts a new charge – courage.