Janet Koplos

Art in America
November 2001
John Newman at Von Lintel & Nusser

John Newman's appealing small sculptures make you think of cartoons and computer animation, yet they're emphatically three-dimensional and tactile. That isn't the only contradiction this body of work presents. The surface details and the intense sense of touch may remind you of tribal fetish objects, while the compositions, which usually involve one element framing or holding another, may evoke scientific equipment. Newman is a world traveler with an interest in the art and artifacts of many cultures and a fascination with the essential qualities of materials; the works reflect that and also convey intelligence, energy and sensuality.

The gallery's main room was dominated by a waist-high fiberboard table on metal legs that drew a large arc in the space, furnishing a notably quiet, orderly platform for 10 antsy sculptures dating from 1998 to 2001. The works vary enormously in configuration, color and medium. Faced with this teeming profusion, you looked for commonalities beyond the modest size (the largest was under 2 feet). You noticed that there are curves in all the works (as well as in the table), that Newman favors spiky things and tangles of all sorts, and that the sculptures frequently suggest actions: tying, squishing, bending, rubbing, penetrating.

Most works incorporate two versions of a single form, and usually one of the elements holds the other up off the table. For example, in Homespun (with a copper braid) the doubled form is a short, fat, tailed object that might bring to mind a children's-book image of a sprightly whale. One is part waxy yellow, the other flocked deep purple, and they are lashed together tail to tail, the yellow one lifted. The head of the purple "whale" has dozens of little protrusions in concentric rings. From the head of the yellow one, copper wires don't merely protrude but are braided into a strand more than a foot long. Homespun (disk trouble) consists of a U-shaped iron bar resting on the table with a shiny copper rod joining its ends; attached to that rod is a two-part construction of little paper boxes tied with jute string, which forms the double-C shape of ice tongs. Clutched in the "tongs" is a segment of spine, the vertebrae made of glass and terra-cotta, the disks of felt. The whole is both logical and fantastic.

Other works employ cast iron, plastic, wood, foam, bamboo, stone and such oddities as "aerogel," a lightweight synthetic substance that looks, in this use, like cubed mist. The gallery's second room featured 31 bright, lively color drawings, all sympathetic to the sculptures yet neither illustrations nor plans. What is the sum? Nancy Princenthal writes in the show's catalogue, "Newman has devoted himself to three-dimensional fictions, to objects with an extreme degree of specificity but barely any descriptive relationship to the real world." That's the marvel: glorious stuff unconstrained by its realness.