Clever prints say too little

November 14, 1991|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

As you approach John Newman's "Twist in Time" from some distance away, the dark image in it looks something like a fetus. But on closer inspection, there's an element in the middle of it that looks like part of a piece of machinery. One is led to the thought that if this thing were ever born it would be either part human and part computer or something from another world; and that whichever it was, it might be both frightening and risible.

In an essay on Newman's work, writer Nancy Princenthal says his "universe . . . lodges at the intersection of sense and sensibility, of physics and emotion," and the show of his prints currently at Sylvia Cordish bears her out. This work also does a balancing act between the abstract and the representational, the geometric and the organic, which is not all that unusual in the art of this century.

A Newman print such as "Twist in Turn" looks as if it might be a plan of the complex innards of some propulsion device; or it might portray part of the brain; or it might be a visual rather than verbal definition of an obsessional mind. Like other works here, it looks like something familiar and then it doesn't and then it does again.

"Moving Target" contains both a "finished" element, at the upper left, and a segment at the lower right that looks like a preliminary drawing for the other. This is another way of contrasting the human, or fallible, with the perfect laws of science or the efficiency of technology.

A disturbing aspect of these prints, though, is that too many of them end up either looking like exercises or verging on the cartoonish, or both. In the former category is "Spin Cloud," which simulates motion in a somewhat facile way. In the latter category are "Auto-Da-Fe," with its mask and hourglass elements, and "Sotto Voce" with its rounded red and white shapes rolling around.

Ultimately, these works end up having less to communicate than you thought they did upon introduction. They are clever, and technically accomplished, but not as deep as they at first appear.

"John Newman: Recent Works on Paper" continues through Nov. 30 at Sylvia Cordish, 519 N. Charles St. Call (410) 539-6611.

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