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Terrence Heath

Brian Newman

artscanada #172/173, Oct. / Nov. 1972.
[ 834 words ]


Heavy, rough timbers thrust in against a slight circle of orange, which seems in the attached front piece to be crumbling away like a wilting petal. This piece, Sundog, is the culmination of the first major exhibition of Brian Newman's painting and sculpture (he has shown locally and at the Waddington Gallery in Montreal), and is also the piece which seems to me to encompass most of the the artist's spatial and technical interests. Because of the smooth, clean angles of the sawed-off ends and the use of shiny aluminum bolts for attaching the wood to the circular plate, the squared timbers give the impression of being more finished than they are. They have been lifted from their rough-hewn state toward an eventual, finished form that the viewer anticipates more than sees. The orange, circular plate that butts the ends of the timbers is, in contrast, absolutely smooth and regular both in shape and finish. At first the contrast works too easily and would seem blatant, if there were not the bent (I wanted to say crumbled) piece attached to the front of the plate. Here, both the finish and the edges and the angles are smooth and regular, but the form itself has collapsed. This front section changes a piece which would have been a static balance of opposites into a sequential form — rough-hewn-ness is transmogrified into perfect form and then disintegrates from within (the finished surface still intact). The sequence, however, is not a free flowing change; it is bolted together in pieces in such a way that the joints are not only conspicuous but emphasized.

Sundog exemplifies the theme of Newman's recent work in both sculpture and painting. In Achilles, for example, the viewer is confronted with almost the same paradoxes — what is rough is solid; what is finished is already in the process of being destroyed or of disintegrating; the coming-into-form is durable; perfection is impermanent. These two large pieces contrast sharply with the early table sculpture, such as Backwash. In the latter, the forms are all highly finished and tacked together to create an assemblage of shapes that are usually quite graceful, flowing in one direction, one shape moving easily into the adjoining. Newman is a craftsman of the finished article and most of the pieces in the show have a surface quality that evinces this care. But the elegance and finish of these earlier, small works does not seem to be used for any purpose other than for elegance and finish. In Sundog and Achilles, by contrast, his craftsmanship in the finish of some parts of the works is an integral part of the concept of the pieces.

The paintings may be profitably viewed as an extension of the basic concepts of the sculpture. On the two-dimensional plane, the regular shapes move into almost chaotic complexity always to re-assert themselves as parts of larger geometric patterns that in turn are shattered into overlapping, smaller shapes. Again the perfections, whether shapes or patterns, are suggested only to be broken, suggested again, and broken again. Even in black and white reproductions something of the variety and intricacy of these changes can be seen. In Ebbing, the movement is hectic in its parts but lulling in its more general, swooping curves. There is both a vortex and a purely surface movement in the shapes, and each is held back from the anticipated completion. In Nations, the movement is much lazier, almost hypnotic, with a certain static insistence of small, geometric shapes. What cannot be seen in black and white is the skillful overlapping of colours. The oils have been sprayed on so thinly, and in so many layers, that five or six colours blend and emerge from the surface of the canvas. The results are very striking and in one painting at least, Osalar, the use of colour itself has begun to dominate the form. As might be expected, there is a danger in this technique in so far as pattern and design easily become satisfying ends in themselves. Two or three of the 15 paintings in the show that I felt were uninteresting for this reason.

I was not impressed by some of the sculpture in the show. Two, Gantry and Canter, look to me like small, cluttered Robert Murrays. There are also four interesting plastic, wood and metal pieces which are attractive but which I found rather neutral and unresolved. On the whole, however, this show is one of splendid visual impact and extraordinary accomplishment.

John Climer, the director of the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon, who brought these works together last summer for a full month's showing, is hoping to interest other galleries in providing their patrons with a view of the work of this young and very exciting Saskatchewan artist. It is rare that a young artist can mount a large show of such vigour and variety. I wish the exhibition would travel across the country in order to elicit wider response to his work.

artscanada #172/173, Oct. / Nov. 1972.

Text: © Terrence Heath. All rights reserved.

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