John Newman

Texas Gallery, Houston

Chelsea Beck

John Newman, Bound Twisted and Upright (quill), 2010; stone, brass wire, acrylic paint on acqua resin, wood putty,foamcore, papier mâché, Japanese paper, mutex, armature wire; 12 ½ x 17 ½ x 6 ½” inches; courtesy the artist and Texas Gallery, Houston

John Newman, White Stones and Keyhole, 2007; stones, enamel on cast bronze, screen, brass, wood, two-way mirrored Plexiglas; 9 ½ x 22 x 12 inches; courtesy the artist and Texas Gallery, Houston

“What weighs more: a pound of gold or a pound of feathers?” John Newman’s recent exhibition of sculptures and drawings at Texas Gallery turns this otherwise simple logic puzzle into a paradox. In the eight tabletop sculptures on view, Newman’s virtuosity with a spectrum of materials confounds. Deeply whimsical, his works seem to answer the above inquiry by way of uncannily appropriate non sequiturs: “Purple!” for instance.

Each sculpture, displayed atop a chest-high plywood pedestal, is a choreographed series of unlikely connections. Newman’s handling of varied and esoteric materials—coconut-fiber rope, Japanese paper, terra cotta and cast polyester, among others—is full of awkward elegance. Marooned in Green Glass with a Yellow Ballerina (2003) partially nestles a scrunched-up piece of lemon-yellow tulle into a concave aluminum plate. The tulle appears to bear down on the aluminum, folding it in on itself and pushing out a large green glass teardrop inside of which sits a golden frog in sand. Following the title, this blissed-out, surrealist-inspired scene suggests a facile, tongue-in-cheek retort to the existential blues.

Lacking such humor is Headturners (Greyed stripes) (2009), an unselfconscious array of pleasing irregular spirals and quirky decorative details that too closely resembles a bland baby-boomer aesthetic. In most of his sculptures, however, Newman is able to steer clear of Margaritaville, achieving instead a refined exuberance and genuine material inquisitiveness. In the show-stopping Bound Twisted and Upright (Quill), two stones bound by brass wire hold a sculpted, purple feather form at semi-erect attention. The erotic assemblage conveys palpable pressure while visually intimating tactile pleasure.

Newman’s eight accompanying works on paper each share the title and imagery of one of the exhibition’s sculptures. Hung on the gallery wall adjacent to the sculpture it depicts, each drawing focuses on the artist’s process of conceiving a 3-D work on view. Compared to the sculptures, however, the drawings rely on more standard tools of the trade: ink, pencil, china marker, chalk, collage and gouache. Yellow Dipped Hawaiian (2005) looks like a technical drawing, schematizing a series of anthropomorphized ball joints. Comprised of multiple views and detail close-ups, some on pages torn from a sketchbook and collaged onto the drawing, the work reads like a plan and lacks the authority and autonomy of the three-dimensional work. The material predictability of the medium of drawing itself—essentially marks on paper—puts Newman at a disadvantage.

The strength of Newman’s work derives from its improbability. Through poetic and goofy combinations of disparate materials that mix up sensory expectations, his works invite viewers to relish the intuition, sensuality and invention increasingly absent from the multi-tasking efficiency of the daily grind.

Chelsea Beck is an artist based in Houston.

This exhibition will be on view until October 30, 2010.

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