Spinning by Richard Davey
Spinning by Richard Davey
Spinning – Nature, culture and the spiritual in the work of John Newling
By Richard Davey
A 140 page book that looks at the work of John Newling over four decades. The book includes 175 images including rarely seen work and documentation of early practice.
Published by Nottingham Contemporary
Copyright © 2012 Richard Davey
All rights reserved.
Edited by Peter Sawbridge
Photographs © 2012 John Newling
Designed by Joff and Ollie, www.joffandollie.co.uk
Printed in the UK
Preface by Richard Davey
‘Questions multiply the mystery,’ John Newling said in one of our conversations in preparation for this book. It was an off-the-cuff statement, made while we were talking about his interest in the Riddler, one of the villains from the Batman comics and television series. For more than forty years Newling has been questioning and interrogating the world around him. He has travelled its liminal borders and investigated its often-overlooked spaces. And he has responded to what he has found in numerous memorable works that have exposed the mystery, uncertainty and wonder that surrounds us.
Newling’s public works have gained him a significant international reputation as an artist who defies conventional boundaries to bring new insights. Despite this, he remains relatively unknown in the wider art world, perhaps because his practice cannot easily be located within a specific school or context. He is very aware of other artists, both historic and contemporary, and is particularly drawn to the work and ideas of Joseph Beuys and James Turrell and to the ideals of Arte Povera.
Essentially, however, Newling has ploughed a unique furrow, often seeking alternative venues and using unusual materials that challenge the boundaries of art. And despite the strong theoretical and conceptual framework that underpins them, his works remain fundamentally sculptural and visual. He deliberately creates forms that reflect the ideas contained within them, and seeks to make his works as beautiful as possible.
Newling may not have influenced an artistic school, but he has certainly had an impact on the students he has taught over the years and the members of the public who have experienced his work or become the materials used in their production. They have questioned him, and he has questioned them, and in the process a world of mystery has been opened up. Passers-by have asked him what he is doing, why, and is it art? And he in turn has asked people for their wishes, mysteries and the things that make them happy. Like the very public riddles splashed across billboards and flown across the sky by the Riddler, Newling’s works have asked people to stop and think, and for a moment to entertain the possibility of angels and wonder. They are the modern-day equivalent of the medieval wayside shrine, an opportunity to enter into sacred time in the midst of the everyday.
I first began to work closely with Newling in 2003, when his exhibition Currency and Belief was held at the Djanogly Gallery, Nottingham. This was a period of transition, marked by the influential ‘Churchworks’, Chatham Vines and Stamping Uncertainty, and his move to a more ecological focus. It was a time when his work was becoming less mechanical and more natural, less secular and more spiritual. In 2007 I wrote the preface for his book An Essential Disorientation. It was here that I first began to explore the inter-relationship of nature, culture and spirituality in his work, themes which have always been present, from the moment when, as a teenager, he unveiled a crucifix on the school stage, through his scrabbling in the dirt of a canal towpath in Stoke, to his recent, exquisite small sculpture of a church on wheels made out of leaves.
The shape of this book has been influenced by Newling’s practice. It is deliberately not chronological, nor does it seek to locate him within a particular context. Instead its focus is the island of ideas and materials Newling has worked with over the years, an ever-expanding cyclone of mystery that spins around him. My text explores the central themes he has engaged with and examines the world through the insights his work affords. Although it discusses a wide range of his extensive output this is not a comprehensive survey, but I hope it will provide a starting point from which to engage with the work of this fascinating and exciting artist.
In our first preparatory conversation Newling showed me his Nine Twists of Nature drawings and the accompanying performance photographs. Even though they dated from the very beginning of his career when he was a Research Fellow at Wolverhampton, the cloud forms produced by his spinning body seemed to epitomise the concerns that have shaped his work over the years. They very quickly influenced the shape of the book and also provided its title. For what Newling has been doing throughout his career is spinning. Spinning and spinning for forty years, in ever-widening circles away from the lure of the centre, pursuing a lonely path, whilst looking down at the world with the focused eyes of the falcon.