John Newman’s sculptures circumvent the traps of predictability. It is their conscious aim and inspiring achievement. It also is ample reason to make Newman’s work impossible to categorize.
For a bit more than a decade, a period when much of the world succumbed to a bigger-and-louder-is-better-and-more-easily-heard philosophy, Newman’s sculptures have become increasingly personal. Referred to by him as “homespun”, they are intimately scaled and hence, readily accessible. That does not mean that they lend themselves to a quick assessment. True, it is easy to study these sculptures on their free-standing, artist-designed pedestals from all angles, but as our eyes travel Newman’s unique blend of materials and forms with cultural and aesthetic influences, we begin to question what just a minute ago, seemed concrete. Preconceived concepts dissolve and we find ourselves, where Newman likes his audience best: embarking with him on new territory.
In Newman, what appears as stone might be made of papier-mâché; what seems heavy might be extremely light, what strikes us as solid can prove to be fragile. As soon as we study these visual conundrums closely, we second-guess our first impression. Though Newman’s works are not riddles that beg to be solved, they playfully encourage investigative viewing. We begin to decipher what we know, before allowing the unknown to manifest. This viewing experience is two-fold. We can either contemplate sculptures from afar as a whole, as solid units made of various distinct elements, or while zooming in on separate facets. In Newman, each side and each element of the work has been extensively contemplated with the knowledge that each is meant to offer a distinct visual experience.
As a group, Newman’s works evoke eclectic references, but without specificity. They are highly associative, but without quoting anything or any stylistic movement in particular. In some instances, Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement, comes to mind when studying the relationships between unlike elements, such as structures made of blown glass, tulle and cast acrylic. Occasionally, rounded forms combined with a bright palette initiate an overall cartoon-esque quality in some works, whereas complicated geometric problems define the core of others. Though varying greatly and proving an underlying wealth of imagination, all of Newman’s works can be thought of as arrangements, yet without establishing a decorative or craft-like feel. They are neither trivial nor simply ornate. Instead, they are intelligent and highly sophisticated in their classic exploration of balance. Newman challenges himself to develop unusual or even radical forms, and to fuse them into constructs that exude a clear sense of harmony. His sculptures might be vibrant melting pots, extreme hybrids, and enchanting puzzles, but they also are classic compositions of art.
It was towards the late 1990s that Newman shifted paths. Before, he had worked large, creating sculptures, whose sheer scale gave them a distinct and at times somewhat imposing presence. These works were inspired by geometric principles and their muted palette accentuated a more restrained outlook on expression. Though Newman wove many of his former concerns into his new body of work, it differs greatly. Brewing together his acquired knowledge of form with a new affinity for a saturated palette, Newman allows his smaller works to appear both sophisticated and quirky.
Much of Newman’s work is about the unification of opposites. In that sense, a dialogue between biomorphic and geometric forms, soft and hard structures, or between hot and cold, aggressive and passive elements, sparks each work. This can bestow a somewhat human quality onto some of the works. Each is distinct in its accumulation of attributes, which can range from mysterious, humorous, determined, unapologetic, aloof, tender, bold, and sexy to ethereal. Despite Newman’s devotion to abstraction, his sculptures can at times appear as figurative. In the past, some works have even referenced (albeit in a most abstract manner) ballerinas or the Brothers Grimm’s Rapunzel, for example.
In his newest selection of work, presented by New York’s Tibor de Nagy Gallery this past spring (March 15-April 21, 2012), a work entitled “Red and Wooden Span” (2012) evokes a layered tongue. Here, three distinct curvilinear shapes, one made of laminated wood, one of extruded aluminum painted red, and one of papier-mâché painted in a distinct geometric pattern, are stacked on top of each other. It is their shared wave-like structure that transforms these three distinctly different components into one solid family unit; it is the palette of the overall composition, ranging from off-white and light pink to deep red and black, that adds an additional sense of dramatic dynamism. Meanwhile, “Green and White and Hanging On” is an excellent example of Newman’s interest in balance. A white piece of sculpted glass, forming an elegant arch describes this sculpture’s foundation. On its top, mint tulle and a bronze cast from a eucalyptus bark are set up horizontally. From the edge of the latter, a forged iron piece that translates as a line drawing dangles delicately. The whiteness of the glass provides a sense of otherworldly weightlessness. This is a meditation on finely nuanced relationships; every distinct part of the sculpture is attached to each other, but can be viewed both individually and in correlation.
The same is true for “Fitting Disks in Powder Blue”. A piece of extruded aluminum painted in light blue becomes as mysterious as an ocean relic. Fitted into the structure are three ovals, one made of a blackened pumic stone, one made of wood and one of red papier-mâché relief. In its frontal organization, this sculpture reminds of Chinese landscape stones. Meanwhile, the iconic presentation of three related albeit very different shapes allows the imagination to wander; I for example find myself contemplating the family relationships between triplets, the concept of a Holy Trinity, as well as Pisinoe, Aglaope and Thelxiepi, the three sirens and daughters of the river god, Achelous in Greek Mythology. However, nothing could be further from Newman’s mind than to create works that suggest specifics. His sculptures are not meant to be “solved”. They are not narrative and do not hold one truth or tell one story. Instead, by encouraging a close and detailed viewing experience, they lure us in and challenge us to embark on a journey of our own imagination.