Fitting disks in powder blue 2010 extruded aluminum, pumice stone, wood,
handmade Laotian paper, starch 10 ½ x 12 x 6 inches Tibor de Nagy Gallery
Work of John Newman
By Stephanie Buhmann
John Newman’s sculptures circumvent the traps
of predictability. It is the artist’s conscious aim and inspiring achievement. It also is ample reason to make Newman’s
work impossible to categorize.
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 readily accessible. This 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 cause us to question what just a
minute ago seemed definite. 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 viwing 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
Green and white
and hanging on 2012
hot sculpted glass, tulle, patinated and flocked cast bronze from eucalyptus bark, forged iron28 x 10 x 5 inches Tibor de Nagy Gallery
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.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.
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.
Red and wooden span2012
extruded aluminum, laminated wood, mutex, Japanese paper, papier-mâché, wood putty, acqua resin,
acrylic and enamel paints8 ½ x 7 ½ x 20 inches Tibor de Nagy Gallery
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 pumice stone, one made of wood and one of red papier-mâché relief. In its frontal organization, this sculpture recalls 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 in nature 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.
Buhmann is a freelance writer based in New York. Her articles and
interviews with artists have been published by various art magazines.
She is a contributing editor for Artcritical.com.