SAFE GALLERY | January 10-February 11, 2018
The biomorphic form in art has been with us implicitly at least since the Lascaux cave paintings and explicitly since the dawn of abstraction—in the seriously playful expressions of Paul Klee and Joan Miró, for example. The fact that the biomorph is such a basic formal device imperils its usage as a rote stylization: becoming a mere representation of “the natural”—or nature as an indeterminate blobby becoming. John Newman’s recent mini-retrospective of works presented at Safe Gallery is thickly populated with all sorts of biomorphic tropes but fortunately the assembled works escape the fate of the quick read of quirky stylizations offered in place of uncanny presence.
The show was very carefully installed (by Dan Nadel, director at Karma Gallery) to create a lively cross-pollination between Newman’s pod-like forms, combining different bodies of work from a period ranging from the early 1980’s, when the artist had just graduated from Yale, up until the present. The earliest work in the show, Untitled (Deadlock) (1983) is a large drawing that the artist developed from a schematic plan for the organically-faceted sculptures that he was working on at the time. It’s a dense and engaging work on paper that feels like a multicolored blueprint for a monumental painting. Different iterations of sculptural shapes surround a larger violet and black, splayed form with a nucleus of an orange infinity loop. On a level of art-historical gestalt, the combination of shapes brings to mind Francis Bacon’s flayed ox superimposed by the quizzical mannequin head of a classic De Chirico. The nervous energy of the contemporaneous painterly personages of Jed Garret and Susan Rothenberg also haunt the work. These resemblances are unsurprising since painting specifically (and art in general) in New York at the time was in a post-post minimal phase, exploring the possibilities of anxious figuration. Elizabeth Murray’s antic collages of torqueing form came directly out of this milieu as well and it seems as if Newman had his eyes and mind wide open to the possibilities of re-inventing abstraction in all of its lascivious liquidity. About a decade later one can see the refinement and elaboration of this impulse in another sculpture-schematic drawing the artist used as an armature for a two-dimensional composition. Untitled (1991) looks somewhat like the asexual mating of a geometric tube worm, tightly braided at one end and dually trumpet-mouthed at the other. From these “mouths” a viscous linear membrane implies a process of forceful decoupling. Like the previous work, this figure is offset by a ground of much smaller sculptural marginalia in the form of cubes, rhombi and arcs. The form, if not the content is reminiscent of the drawings of William T. Wiley and the quirky biomorphic figuration of Jim Nutt. It’s also not surprising, during that time, that Newman may have been looking beyond the aesthetic predicates of downtown New York for his formal inspiration in artists from the west coast and the midwest. A rich mix of influences was at large during this earlier period of the artist’s development, and it is, after all, what one does with the synthesis (or deconstruction) of such influences that situates any artist in their time, and, paradoxically with time, can lend their work a timeless quality.
Distributed throughout the L-shaped space of the gallery are table- height stands featuring what seem to be small maquettes for larger environmental landscapes. These works, such as Red and Wooden Span (2012) and A Small Monument for Heliotropism (2017) are delicate organic soliloquies of carved wood and extruded aluminum that reference vegetal morphologies more obviously than the previous works described. They harken back to the surrealist- inspired drawings and models that Frederick Kiesler made for the theater in the 1940’s and 50’s and in his Endless House Project (1950-60) and, like this precedent, suggest entirely alternate environments of seeing. The polychromies of these table top sculptures—combines of acidic greens and checkered reds—has something alien about it too, as if these imagined worlds are even outside of our liminal thinking of them. It is this uncanny aspect that saves these works from devolving into a facile biomorphic formalization. They are seriously playful, rather than playfully serious. Newman is laudably unafraid to go there, where the angels of academic formalists fear to tread.
In the last leg of the exhibit Newman has mounted a comprehensive survey of 65 drawings on buff paper made from black gesso and white pencil. Entitled, Developing Old Negatives (2017), this series seems an encyclopedic x-ray of the artist’s switched-on mind. Processed from multifarious information such as textbooks on mathematical data visualization and other sources, these ghostly drawings float like illuminated diatoms in Newman’s oceanic imagination. Appropriately, it is to the wave form that the biomorphic impulse makes its most profound connection to the unbroken web of life, the quantum mechanics of being. It’s Newman’s deep appreciation for the bio-mechanic continuity of form, and its attendant meaning, that unifies the show.
TOM McGLYNN is an artist and frequent contributor to Artseen.