Sculpture Magazine
2006 April

John Newman
Clifford Gallery, Colgate University

There is nothing minimal, straight, or right-angled about John Newman’s recent body of intimately sized work. Ambiguous in their ceaseless fusion of playful preciousness and ironic wit, the 13 sculptures assembled in “Monkey Wrenches and Household Saints” question ordinary conceptions of taste and embrace a provocative aesthetic. As the title implied, the exhibition aimed to unite what usually seems contrary. Unpredictable blends of materials, forms, and textures, all employed with a keen eye for minute detail, continuously succeeded in catching viewers off-guard, encouraging us to decipher associative narratives that slowly unfolded beneath the colorful surfaces.

Brass and Wicker Rapunzel pays lyrical homage to the famous Brothers Grimm tale in which the imprisoned Rapunzel lowers her hair from a windowless tower, enabling a prince to climb up her. Newman translates the sexual metaphor inherent in this passionate union of future lovers with an almost surreal sensibility. An elaborate wicker construction features two cone-shaped ends that faintly suggest an old-fashioned telephone handle. From this dominant part, which was woven by a member of the Calcutta wicker-weaver’s union, a glamorous gold braid made of brass wire pours into space. In addition to the curvilinear movements of the intertwined elements, the fluency of the wire and highly polished sheen of the metal provide the sculpture with an overtly feminine aura, a testament to the eternal lure of the woman.

No less sexy, Marooned in Mirror with Blue Ballerina transforms a mold-blown glass piece with an attached turquoise tulle tutu into a portrait of a ballerina that seems as intimate and loose as a Degas pastel. The skirt is fluff under its wooden armor, while the mirrored head hides its ulterior thoughts by merely reflecting the outside. One Achilles heel, one opening into the true nature of this alien creature remains: toward the front of the head an opening leads inside. At the bottom of this gaping mouth, a three-dimensional collage made of miniature black geometric shapes can be found. Embedded on cream-colored sand, it becomes a tribute to the basic ingredients of Minimalism.

However playful in their appearance, the works in “Monkey Wrenches and Household Saints” left no doubt about Newman’s appreciation for the challenges posed by such crafts as glass-blowing, stone-carving, and the threading of wicker. After spending a year in Italy as the 2003 recipient of the Rome Prize Fellowship, he developed a keen interest in Renaissance stone-carving, and hence, a skillfully folded marble cushion takes center stage in Gold and Gourds on a Marble Pillow. Presented on this luxurious support and connected by a gold papier- mâché swirl, the two gourds, which were both gifted to Newman by a Tanzanian witch doctor, require careful examination. Their almost tender display, enveloped in lush stone folds, seems to suggest a respectful handshake between Western and African art.

-- Stephanie Buhmann