Never Trust a Laura Newman Veritcal
By Amy Sillman
A version of this essay appeared in the catalog for the July 2010 exhibition, Laura Newman: Glass Walls and Billboards at the Anna Leonowens Gallery, The Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University, Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Never trust a Laura Newman vertical. It might be the edge of a house, the tilt of a glass plane, or a door handle; it might indicate a painting within a painting, or a skeletal tree trunk that grew in from somewhere, and, oh, by the way, it also doubles as the cord of a wrecking ball and a stray power line. Newman’s verticals and orthogonals function like unreliable narrators: they fool the eye and throw basic spatial frameworks into question. In her work, closeness looks far away, flat planes might be cut-outs, transparent windows open out to nothingness, clouds act as people, wisps of breeze arise from nowhere, and whole pictures are tilted off-kilter by triangular shims lurking in eccentric corners.
Technically speaking, the parallax view is the apparent displacement or difference in the position of an object when it is viewed along the two different lines of sight. Newman pictures the world as a correspondingly parallax place. Newman never settles for a monocular kind of vision or a singular kind of meaning. If you scan your eye down any of her sightlines, you will find recurrent jump cuts and double entendres all along the way. Her images are everyday ones, portrayed in a manner of seeming benevolence or almost cartoonish serenity – houses, walls, fences, windows, horizons – but they are rendered with intentional spatial implausibility and absurdity. This is a world seen from the mind’s eyes, and I say the mind’s “eyes,” plural, on purpose, to propose the metaphoric parallax of Newman’s paintings, with their purposefully displaced or different way of being.
Take, for example, the painting Winter Scene (2009). Here we are confronted with a large empty picture plane, either a painting on an easel or an in-your-face billboard. Fair enough: a picture within a picture. But the flat image that nearly fills the painting is shifted over, not centered, leaving approximately 20% of the left side of the painting as a rather eccentric vertical column of “background.” The vertical spine that lies between the figure and its “background” is therefore the most important spatial axis in the painting, but in place of a simple vertical line drawn along this border, Newman has sketched a stuttering line with stops and starts, and that complicate, rather than clarify, what would ordinarily be a simple binary space. The ensuing complications of here vs. there make for a kind of pictorial sight gag. Newman’s paintings are rife with such slapstick spaces and objects, where you might literally bump into a glass door or try to walk through a wall. As unreliable as the space itself is the wooden-looking structure that holds the billboard, which seems to have been built by a carpenter as illogical as the space she lives in. This billboard appears to be made from generic 2x4s , but they are attached asymmetrically, one from behind and the other from the front. And, by the way, what time of day is it? The sun, as capricious as the things it shines on, illuminates some of the surfaces of the 2x4s and not others, while the rest of the painting lives on in a placidly motionless white light.
The picture (or billboard) in Winter Scene has four colors that are arranged in a horizontally descending sequence that reads like a list: leaf green, maritime blue, baby blue, bright red. These colors seem almost indifferent to each other; they do not mingle into each other or interact precisely, but settle tolerantly near each other, each color with its own slightly different temperament or action, by turns notched, extended, billowing, and reclining. Meanwhile, the uncertain boundary of these color-forms is the vertical strip on the left side of the billboard, along which different things happen to different colors: mossy green lies adjacent to leafy green, two blues transmogrify into two different blues, and red comes to a concrete end.
If one considers the notion of the parallax view as a function of this work, one quickly arrives at the flipside of the parallax coin: the blind spot. Sure enough, though seeing is key to Newman’s work, at its core is the implication of a psychic blind spot. The emphasis on sight, through the many vistas, vanishing points and spatial geometries, implies that there must be some witness, some beholder, some subject at the heart of the action, a gaze that must proceed from SOMEWHERE. But this spot goes undescribed, and is located only at a vortex of blindness. There is at the center of Newman’s work a sense of silence, of immobility or non-inflection, as though the psychic subject of her paintings is a gaze from a void. It is this strangely voided subjectivity in the work that gives Newman’s paintings their feeling of serene, almost majestic, anxiety. The qualities of emptiness and flatness seem to stand for seeing itself, and a subject who has, to a certain extent, disappeared. This self is therefore equivalent to the mind’s eye(s): paradoxical, interior.
Self as disappearance is a contradictory effect in a kind of painting with such strong ties to subjectivity and embodiment as Newman’s. Her work owes much to a tradition of muscular painterly gestures and the trial-and-error procedures of expressionism. But as Newman’s work often functions through its dualities – its sets of opposing images, like double windows or walls, twin bands of color, or twin sets of cloud formations – by extension, this is not a simplistic kind of expressionism. The overarching tension in her paintings is located in a dynamic opposition of presence vs. void, seeing vs. feeling. It is as though her paintings describe a place between forces or events, like a big optical hug, where two arms come to hug you and yet never quite cross over each other to exert any physical pressure or weight. A Lacanian would have a field day with this voided location; a Freudian would go to town with these dynamics of parent and child; a Zen monk would love the underlying implication of emptiness; a slapstick director would go crazy for the way everything is on the verge of falling apart. Newman is a little bit of all of these.
In Conversation: Emily Auchincloss Interviews Laura Newman
By Emily Auchincloss
Emily Auchincloss: You started out making large installations. For an installation artist, space is a primary medium, and you have maintained its primacy in your paintings. Why did you switch to working on canvas?
Laura Newman: I had been painting directly on walls and floors and it made me sad to paint everything out at the end of a project. At that time I was less interested in space than in scale and in the idea of painting as a kind of fiction.
Many of my installations were made up of groups of individual paintings. I wanted the work to do everything at once: to be like stage sets, to read as narratives, to integrate personal experience into the context of abstract painting. Eventually, I realized that some paintings can do some things and other paintings can do others.
EA: That reminds me of the specific landscape or figurative elements in your work that inform the paintings’ compositions. What aspects of these elements are important for you to bring in for the work to be successful, and what do you leave out?
LN: I often start with an abstract idea like “expansive horizontal forms in coloring book colors that pretend to be unaware of each other but aren’t.” As I work, though, motifs appear and disappear. Sometimes the work becomes too closed in and specific, and I lose a sense of freedom that’s important to me. Other times the painting can start to become too arbitrary. What I am looking for is something that surprises me but that at the same time I recognize. At some point I understand what the painting is going to be about, and then I start trying to get rid of whatever is extraneous to that idea. The paintings often end up having more representational ideas in them at the end than they started with.
EA: You spent time in Japan studying the concept of ma, which defines negative space as active, rather than void. What was the impact it had on your work?
LN: I became interested in the idea of ma because it resonated with some of the issues of space in my own work. I realized that when I was working, a painting came alive for me when I could feel the space in it.
EA: Do you have a typical studio routine?
LN: First, I stall! Then I get started. But my work rarely catches fire until later in the day, when I work like a demon. Sit and look at whatever I’m working on. Paint out everything. Take a walk. Look again and notice something hopeful in the work and get rid of everything else. Come back and be horrified by what I’ve done. Turn the painting upside down and it looks better. Make some watercolors. The painting is looking even better. Et cetera.