Art in America
May 2009

Stephen Mueller
“John Newman: New York Studio School”

John Newman’s sculpture is not like anything we have seen before. This exhibition, titled “Instruments of Argument,” was made up of 14 modest-size sculptures arranged on a specially designed, angled and multilevel table, which facilitated viewing in the gallery’s narrow space. Newman’s pieces are made from a dizzying array of materials both ephemeral and enduring—a partial list includes blown glass, woven wicker, cast bronze, extruded aluminum, terra-cotta, stone, papier-mâché, glazed porcelain, wood burl, handmade paper, crystal and feathers; any of these elements might be brightly painted. The methods used in producing the components and the esthetic principles that inform the work are just as varied. Found parts (rocks, wood) are likely to appear in the same piece with computer-guided, laser-cut Masonite or hot-molded glass. The Japanese esthetic principles of wabi-sabi (associated with the tea ceremony, and including the use of utensils for other than their original purpose) are as much a part of Newman’s cauldron of possibilities as are visualizations of mathematical theory, physics and historical architecture.
Blue Bowl Pink Folds (2007) is a vertical piece balanced on a knot of thick extruded aluminum wire. Angled atop this element is a blue porcelain bowl that has been broken and carefully but visibly repaired, in the Japanese fashion; ascending from the bowl are two spirals of thinner wire supporting a molded pink component that could be a model for a building complex in Brasilia or for a Calatrava project. Blue Ribbon Teardrop (1008) is a gestural piece in which a molded ribbon of colored and patterned resin loops up and around, joining the two ends of a wood burl that resembles a ginseng root. Hanging from the helixlike ribbon is a similarly pale-blue teardrop of blown glass.
The engineering of these diverse elements, particularly at the junctures of materials and in the execution of counterbalance, usually seems to defy physical laws as we know them. There is little anthropomorphic reference; rather, these pieces suggest a rare nudibranch species, or something else existing in an atmosphere other than or own. This contributes to the feeling of an encounter with an “other,” encouraging close attention to details—it seems we’re meant to look for potential movement, passive or aggressive intent, intelligence, utility—and inducing some ontological questioning. The clash of diverse materials and illogical forms addresses issues of reasoning. There is humor here but never nudging and winking irony. The skills, erudition and unpredictability of this arresting work will certainly provoke discourse and, as the show’s title suggests, some argument.