John Newmanby Ben La Rocco
New York Studio School: January 2 – March 7, 2009
Entitled Instruments of Argument, John Newman’s exhibition at the New York Studio School might have been called 14 Pearls, after Richard Tuttle’s 20 Pearls, for the gem-like quality and small scale that contribute to the fragile, delicate quality shared by both artists. This is where the formal similarities between Tuttle and Newman end, however, for where Tuttle makes ephemeral work in direct discourse with its environment, Newman creates self-contained sculptures comprising discrete, miniaturized universes. His title’s logic is here clarified, for a good argument is also self-contained and, even if it is irrational, difficult to break apart.
Newman’s sculptures are, in a simple sense, about abutment. The artist seems inclined to ask himself the question: can I seamlessly intertwine dissimilar substances? His undeniable skill as a craftsman finds consistent, affirmative answers to this question by shaping all manner of material, from glazed porcelain and black Marquisate marble to blown glass and foamcore, to evoke the topology of non-Euclidean space, that is to say: fluidly curving form. Newman’s sculptures tend to spiral around themselves forming curves with no definitive start or finish.
This is about the intermingling of argument and art. Newman is partially applying the scientific method, through art, to form visual models of an idea. In the scientific method, one comes up with a hypothesis, tests it, and then forms a working theory from it. The quasi-scientific question under examination in Newman’s case is: What does space outside of our universe look like?
Euclidean space limits itself to 3-dimensional, linear formulations. The Five Platonic Solids are an example. Sixteenth-century German astronomer, Johannes Kepler, came up with a model of the universe based on these solids by placing them inside one another, like Russian Matryoshka dolls, with spheres separating each solid. Now we know that space curves and cannot be modeled in a strictly rectilinear framework. One might nevertheless think of Newman’s sculptures as akin to Kepler’s model, updated for post-Euclidean space. This involves considering the 4th dimension, time, as it qualifies our sense of space. Newman selects materials, bends them into appealing forms to set off their inherent qualities and calibrates them to conjure a new paradigm for visualizing space in the universal sense. Abutment is how logical sequences are formed. These sculptures, though not logical, use abutment to compel their argument, i.e. their form.
Newman’s interests reveal a debt to his generation, one in which ambitiously conceived ideas fueled modestly scaled art. Eve Aschheim, James Biederman, Jim Clark, Linda Francis, Mel Kendrick, Steve Keister, Jim Long and Gordon Moore all come to mind as spiritual relatives of Newman’s. These artists are vastly differing in sensibility (it’s often so in a family) but they have in common a modest scale (compared to their New York School antecedents), a preoccupation with space as it is felt and as it is visualized, and an awareness of how to use curves in their work to evoke a sense of the universe’s expansion beyond the bounds of what the mind can visualize. Even Carol Dunham, another contemporary of this group, in blowing up his scatologically comic characters to a scale at which their curves begin to morph into the abstract, seems to be acknowledging the pull of post-Euclidean influences. These artists are Minimalism’s students and needed to find ways to be inventive in the face of that movement’s didactic underpinnings.
Part of Newman’s response is in his work’s scale, part is in the thoroughly hand-crafted quality of his sculptures. His conundrum is in the nature of a sculpture. Most generally speaking, a sculpture is an object in space. Time, on the other hand, is a condition of (even a prerequisite to) experience. Incorporating the 4th dimension of time in a sculpture is visually oxymoronic. Can an open-ended condition of experience be circumscribed in an object of experience? If so, it must certainly be in a non-literal way. It can only be alluded to, not illustrated. It is perhaps to this end that some of Newman’s sculptures flirt with willful absurdity.
“Open pink with signs of life” (2006) is a drama in three parts. The first is a nautical spiral constructed from a triangulated armature of what appears to be reinforced papier mâché (in many cases, it is impossible to tell precisely what comprises a particular surface due to the large number of materials Newman employs in each sculpture and the degree of transformation that he imposes on each). From the spiral issues a vaguely Persian, terraced form. Its surface appears to be covered in felt (though it is not, based on the materials list) lending it a hat-like appeal. Finally, from a puckered orifice extending upward from the “hat’s” center, spring as three frond-like leaves, plausible enough to elicit close scrutiny.
There is logic to the idea of a nautical spiral giving birth to a leaf. The spiral, after all, is found throughout nature. But there is something visually nonsensical (in the best sense) of seeing plants sprout from abstraction. Particularly when the abstraction is a small sculpture, by sculptural standards, and the plant is normally sized, by plant standards. Here Newman is pushing his question of what can and cannot be considered contextually coherent a little further while intelligently distilling the paradox of his sculpture.
ContributorBen La Rocco