Robert Kushner

Art in America
November 2003

John Newman at Von Lintel

John Newman's new sculptures are like picaresque novels. They carry us from volumetric episode to episode, allowing us to savor a series of abrupt but apt transitions as they swing from rough to smooth, biomorphic to geometric, flashy to subdued. The unifying visual logic is not completely grasped until the journey is complete.

Newman approaches each piece with refreshing intelligence and expects the same degree of discernment from his viewers. The title of this exhibition, "Monkey Wrenches and Household Saints," refers to the inventive combination of found objects, studio fabrication, foundry production and indigenous handwork--Newman's sociological potpourri. Part of the pleasurable disjunction of the works comes from the knowing collision of high-tech and no-tech elements. Due to their small size, the pieces hover on the edge of preciousness. However, their robust presence contradicts expectations. The works inhabit their platform bases like muscular performers, court dwarves ready to entertain and surprise us. The small size also allows us to observe textural differences, such as the distinction between wool gabardine and cotton shirting, without the substances becoming unduly associative.

Previously, Newman's compositions often depended on a completed circle, a continuous chain in which divergent forms fed back into themselves, creating large, closed, ovoid compositions. The best of the new pieces break open that circle and let Newman's unique sense of innovation flow out into space. In feather fan flame, a burning oil lamp is cradled within a rough-hewn pelvic form that has eased itself into a hovering exhaust hood. This support then constricts into a bamboo corset before transforming itself into a melted, splayed fan. Newman places a single insouciant feather at the end of a protuberant forged-bronze tongue depressor as a final flourish. Eschewing the banal, he embraces the unexpected.

Applied color in sculpture is frequently superfluous or arbitrary. Newman uses chroma to animate and differentiate forms. He consistently offers a visual reason, an internal logic for choosing a shade of turquoise for a beringed organic form or a resolute matte saffron on an aluminum extrusion. Here color may interrupt our visual progress or propel us more quickly on the adventure.
Newman presents a series of urbane, modestly sized sculptures displayed on pedestals. Within this basic conservatism, his improvisations with form and materials are so wild and irreverent that we are slightly breathless at the end.