JOHN NEWMAN organized by WILLIAM J. SIMMONS / MARCH 29 - APRIL 11, 2016
In an art world entrenched in the now-retrograde tenets of a narrowly defined postmodernism, where can we locate John Newman’s sculptures and drawings, which seem to have a life unto themselves? Criticality has been the expected mode for artists after 1960, to the detriment of art that does not profess to speak to anything other than its own truth. Anti-essentialism has, in fact, begotten its own kind of essentialism – that all avant-garde art must make some kind of statement, that it must reveal the identity of the maker in an obvious way that occludes the material qualities of the work itself. All art becomes entirely transparent to critique; it must always speak and explain lest it be considered modish décor. What happens when the art object, or the artist, wants to engage with aesthetic discourse in a different way, in a way that could not be easily categorized as critical?
This is not nostalgia for the modernist tradition of autonomy and self-reference, to the exclusion of political or identity-based engagement. Rather, we must seek something else—a state wherein art does not exist purely discursively, wherein its formal/material qualities productively collide with larger sociopolitical circumstances. Anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli suggests that we look to carnality as a new kind of interpretational tool. As she suggests in a recent e-flux interview [http://www.e-flux.com/journal/shapes-of-freedom-a-conversation-with-elizabeth-a-povinelli/], “’Corporeality’” would be the way in which dominant forms of power shape and reshape materiality, how discourses produce categories and divisions between categories—human, nonhuman, person, nonperson, body, sex, and so forth—and ‘carnality’ would be the material manifestations of that discourse which are neither discursive nor pre-discursive.”
John Newman, likewise, seeks an art that revels in multiplicity, and creates thereby a truly carnal art. To this end, Newman affirms the competing truths of art history and the material body. His references to early abstraction (especially Hilma af Klint), Dada, and Surrealism into post-minimalism are deft and insightful, but this is only half of the story. Newman’s work is also an affirmation of the body in all its paradoxes. Sturdy and precarious, fragile and hardy, smooth and aged – Newman’s drawings and sculptures in a fascinating storm of blood, bone, and skin. In this way, Newman points to the possibility of an oeuvre that is beyond the critical, and instead requires new analytical tools that take into account the competing and irreducible questions of human life. The primacy of the self, of the art object as an independent being with its own logic, is thus not in competition with conceptual involvement. Newman’s criticality lies in the onus he places upon the viewer to explore their own body while maintaining an awareness of their individuality within a larger chain of interconnected subjectivities. His work does not deconstruct, that age-old truism of post-structuralism that has come to mean next to nothing. Instead, he gives us the tools to construct something new. All we have to do is give it a name.
In addition to his presentation at FOUR A.M., John Newman’s exhibition of new work at Tibor de Nagy Gallery will be on view until April 30, 2016. William J. Simmons is a graduate of Harvard University and a PhD candidate in art history at the City University of New York Graduate Center. His research focuses on queer theory and feminism in the history of photography. He the arts editor for CRUSHfanzine, is also a contributing editor for Big, Red, and Shiny, and his recent work has also appeared in Artforum, ArtSlant, the HAUNT Journal of Art, W Magazine and the BBC.
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