John Newman
by Nancy Princenthal

John Newman calls his current body of work Homespun, a deceptively simple term indicating that the sculptures are homemade. In a departure from previous practice, Newman has been working at home by hand with materials – and at a scale – that are decidedly domestic; he calls his methods “kitchen technology.” But this is hardly the work of a homebody, as one of its most important sources is travel. In earlier work, Newman’s frequent excursions were into the thick of comtemporary science and cosmology theory, topology in particular. Newman doesn’t minimize the difficulties of cross-cultural understanding, and his purpose is not visual travelogue. At the simplest level, what he brings back with him are materials and techniques used by local artists and craftspeople, along with the memories of more serendipitous visual experiences. Of deeper importance are certain non-Western, or non-mainstream contemporary, attitudes toward the visible world. He is impelled by, and urges his viewers to consider, an “intimate rapport with objects” – an ordinary reverence, not segregated from the business of daily life, for objects that fall in a category between sacred and useful. “What they call worship, we call maintenance,” he says of the terms of engagement that he has encountered in India, for instance, which are both less self-conscious and more spiritually purposeful than others.

Among the most basic results of Newman’s travels is a change of scale in his work. The Homespun works are all small enough to be hand-held. From the beginning of his career and through the late 1980s, Newman’s preferred size was bigger, though often deliberately in-between: neither monumental nor intimate, earlier sculptures were often meant to occupy transitional spaces, spanning corners, or floor and wall; the earliest work was generally wall-mounted, another in-between condition. But for the past few years, the work has been restricted to a size (and weight) that sits comfortably on a worktable (the recent drawings tend to be small as well). At larger scale, sculpture necessarily engages the viewer physically with a material presence which for Minimalism (the entrenched style when Newman was a student) was a fundamental premise. One clear route of departure from the Minimalist program, an alternative hit on almost instantly and still extremely fruitful for contemporary sculptors, is dematerialization, manifest in floor-hugging scatter art, context-determined installation, and the now prevalent esthetic of omni-directional dispersion.

The road Newman has taken runs in an altogether different direction, and is close to solitary. His new work is concentrated and intricate, and calls for a kind of involvement with which most contemporary art viewers have little experience: you have to get as close to the Homespun sculptures, he says, as you would to a baby, or a lover, or a plate of food. But the consumption involved is strictly visual; if the closeness the work calls for is, in Newman’s term, almost embarrassing, it’s an embarrassment of vision, of implied but not realized touch. Clearly too delicate to be generally handled, these sculptures are also too complicated to be grasped (literally and metaphorically) with any immediacy. And in that restriction, that prohibition against touch, there is something paradoxically chaste; a paradox deepened by the sensual appeal – indeed, the open sexuality – in many of these works: the Homespun works are in this sense like statues of household saints, daily dusted and deeply-familiar but quarantined as effectively as canvas within a frame by an equally ordinary immanence.

The materials Newman has been working with include sisal and jute, bark from the lohkti tree and clay from the Ganges, as well as toothpicks, paper, braided copper wire, blown and cast glass, synthetic flocking and a space-age insulation material called Aero Gel. In Calcutta, he worked with local basket-weavers and with artisans of dogra, a Bengali technique in which tree sap is teased into spaghetti-thin strands and then cast in brass to form small filigree objects – and which Newman, going against tradition, fashioned into a substantial, aggregated form. In Japan, he learned a technique used by toy and puppet makers called hariko which involves rice paper and paste – essentially a refined form of paper maché. He has looked into a related technique, called harikake, with which the delicate extensions of some of the most elaborate of samurai helmets were made. Medieval lime-wood statuary interests him as does the use by artisans in the Hebrides of matted layers of spider web. Newman’s own reference to spider webs in a black and white sculpture enmeshed in commercial thread is as clean and poised as the tribal work is rough and skew, but which shares its surprising disjunctions and its unnerving humor.

However compelling, these materials and techniques are not initiating factors for Newman’s work. Closer to the starting point are a few idiosyncratic spatial gestures that constitute a roughly defined series (though Newman resists, understandably, the term’s implication of systematic production). One such group is of recumbent sculptures that are generally low-slung and curvy and often lack a fixed position in which they can sit without rocking or tipping. Sometimes this becomes a highlighted motif, with props, shims, or stands introduced to hold the work in place provisionally (and pointedly so). And sometimes this prom or shim is itself an illusory device, a ruse suggesting an instability that doesn’t exist – a kind of play with appearances that recurs in Homespun. One of the recumbent sculptures features a pair of lidless enameled eyes wired between its looping extremities. Strung tight as if rigid with astonishment, they also suggest a utilitarian function, as if they were the working end of a viewing tool; a semaphore for the priority of vision over physicality.

A second, larger group of sculptures shares a configuration that is, roughly speaking, an interrupted circuit: it could be described as two arms reaching for each other, often doubly- and triply-jointed and sinuously curved. This configuration, which goes back in Newman’s work to 1990, has a connection to the body language of offering, catching, and embracing. Not coincidentally, this welcoming gesture is a counter-movement to the formal language (again associated with Minimalism, even by name) of reduction, exclusion, essentializing. In one or two isolate examples, this shape lends itself to explicit figural associations. For instance, the balsawood work subtitled “Disk Trouble” clearly refers to a spine under compression, with models of human vertebrae made of terra cotta and cast glass at its center. Other examples make less particular figurative references, often to genitalia – there are suggestions of nipples and vaginas, phalluses and sperm-likes drop of fluid.

On the other hand, it would be nearly impossible to specify figurative associations to a small, C-shaped lemon yellow sculpture housed in a glass bell jar. Its main structure, a knobby curving form, was carved by Bengali craftsman from sholapith (as in pith helmets). One arm of the curve terminates in a shallow cup gilded with opalescence on which sits a handful of chunky Aero Gel, a slightly iridescent and extremely light (perhaps the lightest known) material – it looks as if it could be hydrogen-vapor Jello – that is used for insulation on satellites. And on this nearly imaginary mound of fluff floats a little opalescent ball. As goofy and improbable as a good-news dream, the whole is offhandedly gorgeous in a way that is nearly impossible to bring into focus – a resistance that contributes significantly to its appeal.

Slightly more robust, if no less enigmatic, is a sculpture subtitled “Grecian White” that looks as if it’s carved in sugary white granite, though it is actually made with a home brew concocted of paper, papier maché, plaster, foam, wood, putty, and glue; its rounded geometric forms derive, in part, from the doughnut-to-coffee cup deformation that is a basic paradigm in topology. The curving element of Homespun (With a Blue Bubble) is made of paper that in this case resembles cloth, dyed blue and then bleached, leaving color soaked indelibly into what seem pressed-out wrinkles – a surface that also evokes heavily crazed Delft tile. This component meets at a juncture laced corset-style with twine, holding it tight to a clear, blue-tinted blown-glass element. Fragile as a soap bubble, the glass element is squashed to within a hair of oblivion. The degree of tactile and optical detail in these sculptures is as engrossing as any drama, its powers of attraction the more remarkable for the absence of narrative reference.

There are, in fact, a group of relief-like sculptures within Homespun that have a structural kinship to dramatic narrative, though they, too, are only, at most, allusively figurative. Built around flat elements standing on end, they are among the most disconcerting, or at least unfamiliar, of Newman’s work. Materials include fine gauge wire, satiny red ribbon, and tattered bits of cheesy blue plastic. One such sculpture seems to have been visited by an exploding missile that has ruptured its surface with a stop-action blue splash. Another is pimped on the back in a pattern partly inspired by statues of Shiva and Parvati adorned with the little balls of butter that are thrown in acts of worship. Indeed it is central to each of these works (and latent throughout Homespun) that they record an act which produces a visible result. “What they all share is a superstructure, and a smaller contained event, as if something was caught that just flown in, or something was there already and its inside was revealed. There is a consequence,” Newman says.

These expanded relief sculptures can be compared to back-to-back movie frames, or cartoon cels, and also, as in particle physics, to event horizons; membranes separating incompatible physical realities. They are also related, if distantly, to pages in a book – or paired sheets of drawings. The relationship between drawing and sculpture in Newman’s current work continues to be rich and complicated, extending a dynamic that has operated for some time: the drawings are conceived as descriptions of speculative or irrational forms, complicated and condensed objects that however meticulously rendered utterly defy physical laws and, like Piranesi’s visionary architecture, can never be built. And then Newman builds them, pushing materials past reasonable expectation and, when he deems it necessary, defying convention by realizing in three dimensions the illusionistic techniques usually reserved for graphic depiction. Hence rounded surfaces are shaded to exaggerate and distort their curvature; openings are made elliptical to tilt them away optically from a privileged viewing point; and orthogonals are drawn into fully dimensional space, as in a work in which perspectival devices make an irregularly shaped, trapeze-like structure, immobilized by a too-tight frame, seem a perfectly right-angled swing ready to fly.

This compression of the role of drawing and sculpture is in some ways a reversal of its earlier relation in Newman’s work when paper was gouged and pitted, drawn into and through, as though it were a sculptural medium. By bending boundaries in the other direction and making objects behave like images, Newman upends perceptual habits so deep-seated they’re practically impossible to see. Rather than truth to materials and integrity of the physical process, there is the perfectly circular logic of unrepentant fiction, in which laws of gravity don’t apply and two objects may gladly occupy the same place at the same time. Newman is greatly concerned at the extent to which contemporary culture, from popular television to the most ambitious new visual art, has been hijacked by the values of things like reality TV. As he points out, anything that can be called information is given credence, from confessional literature to sculptural installations based on extensive historical and social research. Following an impulse that is characteristically quixotic, 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. He has been looking with interest at Lucas Samaras’ unclassifiable sculptures, and Calder’s. Lee Bontecou and Eva Hesse are both important to his current work; so are the manifold achievements, presently not much celebrated, of Arte Povera. What Newman is after in his new work is a kind of humor – joy, even – that’s witty but not arch or jokey, a way of making art that is unprotected by irony without being sentimental. Not entirely for the first time, he seems impelled by a determination to defeat verbal language (no small sacrifice for a world-class wordsmith) and replace it with something less guarded. The sculptures that make up Homespun are small, sometimes bristly, and always resistant to quick conceptual capture. But their overriding attitude is an openness of fairly staggering dimensions.