Critical Texts

Essay By Mona Casey for Stage exhibition catalogue mac  birmingham 2015


Paul Newman – Stage

Paul Newman creates sprawling yet contained worlds, landscapes of fiction, sometimes whimsical and often playful. His worlds make reference to art history, are frequented by autobiographical quotation and are opportunistic in terms of making.  His work explores the push-pull between abstraction, figuration and performance.

Newman’s subject matter and imagery emerge from sources in Art history, from Museums and from Film. In Art history, the tradition of Romanticism in painting, Surrealism, and the theater present in the works of the 20th century, Italian artist and metaphysical painter, De Chirico have impacted on his thinking. British landscape painting, and in particular artists such as Gainsborough and Constable, have had particular resonance and influence on the concepts in the work, but are also influential in terms of imagery and the figure – ground, subject – landscape, relationship.

His work also encompasses, many of the concerns that are related to the taxonomy of the theatre, such as scene staging and set making, whilst adopting elements of theatrical language such as flats, props, arrangement, narrative, performance, gesture and so on.

Paul Newman’s work is entangled in his own personal narrative, and he is sometimes the subject of the work he makes. The paintings, sculptures, installations, drawings, videos, performances are central to a portrait, a version of himself, that makes facets of the work at times so personal. If he does not emerge as physical performer, performing an adopted lumbering characterization, he appears as fragmentary memories encapsulated within repeated motifs that appear in a variety of mediums within the making and the staging of the work. Such motifs as the white van, chair, sugar cubes, teacups, oval mirror etc. are tied into memories and narratives from his own history and experience.  They often re-appear and are re-cycled, slightly altered through the medium, and are part of a language of images that he pulls from.

That is not to say that because the subject of the work contains elements of auto-biography that it is not relevant for us. On the contrary, he presents his subjectivity in a way that relates to the vulnerable, the strangeness, the odd, the beauty and the angst that surrounds us, and is a part of our everyday lives. In some ways what we see is analogous to Oscar Wilde’s, Victorian character Dorian Gray, a character who pursued beauty and sensuousness, and sells his soul, to remain forever young and beautiful, but what is given to us in the exhibition space, is the thing we only see at the end of the story, we get to see the transformed portrait, the thing that holds the flawed self, developed over time.


Shift from the studio to the exhibition space.

The studio is an important part of the process of making. The work is made here, but also the studio becomes the subject. Newman’s studio is a colorful, full, slightly chaotic environment, and it can be difficult sometimes to distinguish between works, where one ends and another one starts. The physical borders and edges of the ‘work’ is something that is continually being contested. Here, potentially all, of the studio is the artwork. Recently in an interview, he stated that “Because my studios space is fairly small and not so practical, for the type of work that I make, everything is in my periphery vision. All the things in the outskirts of the viewpoint come into the work.” Newman’s studio activity and space of making is often supplanted and re-established in the exhibition space. This alludes to the history of re-constituting and re-construction of studio spaces seen in such exhibitions as Paris – New York, curated by Pontus Hulten in the 1970’s, where Mondrian’s New York studio and Gertrude Stein’s salon, were re-staged within the context of the exhibition site; this also recalls the methodical and painstaking archeological cataloguing and reconstruction of Francis Bacons, London studio at The Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin. But with Newman’s work, his re-construction is something different; not only does he take a slice of the studio, (the wallpaper, the surfaces covered with painterly marks, the remains of where work has been made, the carpet, domestic electrical stuff, other art works and objects) and place it in the gallery; he re-orders and collages components, to create a new, staged and composed version. In the transference, an editing occurs and physical gaps of wall or space are created between works. The distinction and particularity of the ‘studio’ and the ‘gallery’ is vital to the work, as is the distinction between the ‘studio environment’ and the ‘artwork’ that uses the studio as image. In the gallery there is recognition of the artifice of the stage, a nod to the trick of the exhibition format and the audiences experience of viewing art, as staged event. It is here that the metaphor of the conjurer – illusionist – artist gains purchase. The motif of the white gloves, which appear so frequently throughout the work allude to this concept, but Newman sees his conjuring as having failed to a degree, as he is unable to demonstrate the scientific know-how, the skills of the discipline. This is yet, for the reader – viewer to judge.


Figure – Ground impact

Newman deliberates on the staging and composition within his work. This is not a new phenomenon and has emerged historically as a set of Principles, which include perspective, colour, negative space, etc., features used for the organisation of a harmonious composition, whilst taking into account the viewers gaze. These principles from the traditions and history of painting (and also design) have impact here. Within the multi-media drawing, installation and video, there is a conscious attempt to define depth of field, play with the focus and magnification of elements, challenge foreground and background and collapse and squash space. The work experiments with degrees of distance and separation and tends towards the creation of a frontal experience, a clearly delineated ‘on-stage’, ‘off-stage’ area (performed area and viewer position). Space on the stage of the work is created through the positioning of elements – such as two-dimensional cutout drawings, statues, performers or object-props. We are always being made aware of the particularity of the space between things, and how these things are set in relation to a scene, a backdrop and the viewers gaze. Sometimes that space, relationship between figure – ground is reduced and dissolved.

Sometimes the figure is that, (as in such video works The Last Day, 2011  a performer, immersed in the studio environment to such an extent that we are barely aware of the liveness in the stillness and still life of the studio and its production paraphernalia. The surface image of the work, allude to the colour and gestural painted surfaces of artists such as the contemporary British painter Cecily Brown and Dutch abstract expressionist, Willem De Kooning, where depth is given least priority in acknowledgement of the canvas, the materiality of the paint, and the removal of illusory space; but here the paint is objects, textured and coloured stuff.

In other works such as The Circle, 2009 the performer with masked head and hands, salutes space through the repetitious action of reverse walking around a tree in a snowy landscape. The defining of the terrain here is created by footprints trace in the snow, and is reminiscent of Bruce Nauman’s, (USA) late 1960’s / 70’s performances in his studio, where he maps the place of production through a range of methodical movements and repeated actions.

The repercussions of this desire to define space, emerges unambiguously when ‘mirror’ as stuff is used, within the work. Then the viewer is implicated within the consideration of the composition.  In the reflection, the space outside the frame of the work is now in the world of the work. Like Jan Van Eyke’s painting, The Arnolfini Portrait (1434) the painter, unseen in the image, is reflected in the mirror, hung on the distant wall. We too, like the painter, become visible in the world of the work. We are no longer just passive unseen spectators. The devise now used by Newman enables us to observe ourselves in the rear view mirror, where we too can become part of the landscape.

Paul Newman’s work is seductive, and this is reflected in the use of colour, materials, mark making and arrangement. There is an essentially tactile relation to the materials and the process of making the work, which is communicated through this seductiveness. The aesthetics of the work draw on the desires of Romanticism to communicate emotional experience and the personal voice of the artist. The metaphor of the Romantic ‘hero – artist’, creating worlds, is as much about the potential of realisation, as it is about the unrealised, the unattainable, and the failure to realise the vision. In the face of the post-industrial world, the lone character, the lumbering Frankenstein character, continues to seek magic, something wonderful in the creative process.

Mona Casey

July 2015




Foreword by Craig Ashley for Stage exhibition catalogue

Paul Newman is concerned with painting in its broadest sense.  From the raw materials and the tools, to the subject and the technique, through to the act of making a painting in the artist’s studio and its subsequent display in the gallery or in the book, his work explores the processes and residues of a medium that is richly and complexly layered throughout history.

Consisting of drawing and painting, photography, performance and video, and bric-a-brac accumulated in the studio over time, Newman’s palette is almost limitless – constrained only by scale which is relative to the dimensions of his Birmingham-based workspace.  The wide range of media he uses bleeds in a painterly manner, collaged both within his individual works and throughout installations in which one work often sits upon another and in turn another, creating depth and blurring the edges between the picture plane and the space it inhabits.

Well-known examples from European painting, from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries especially, echo and reverberate across his expansive body of work.  Whether through loose interpretations of notable scenes in oil or ink, or through postcards that were bought on visits to museums and then gradually incorporated into his paintings and installations, Newman draws from art history and deploys the selected materials purposefully as a further extension of the medium, treating them like pigment or paint.

Together with carefully chosen and charged motifs – contemporary artefacts such as the teacup, the Ford Escort van and the illusionist’s white gloves – these familiar figurative images recur and repeat, becoming abstracted through the persistent repetition and inducing a sense of déjà vu.  Throughout a practice that has spanned over 10 years to date, Newman has frequently recycled and reintroduced fragments of previous works such as masks, costumes or props. It is a device that enables him to look forward and back, and further reinforces for the viewer the sense of having already seen.

Newman’s Stage – the title of this publication and the exhibition it accompanies – can perhaps be thought of as a metaphor for his artistic practice. It alludes to the artist’s studio, a site of performance, or a set inhabited by his invented characters and their respective narratives. It conveys a sense of liveness and immediacy, influenced by the presence of the spectator and their perspectives and interpretations. And it represents an imaginative space that is both isolated from contemporary realities yet at the same time is able to draw upon them.  For Newman the studio is not purely an apparatus for making the work, and the stage is not only a platform for conveying it; these two arenas converge to form the work itself.


Craig Ashley, 2015

Visual Arts Producer

mac birmingham




Catalogue text for Babelling at Sluice Art Fair in London


Creating a voice within the multi plural languages of many art forms and their histories is a challenge of choice and discovery. ‘Babelling’ is a hybrid of the three art practices of Ian Andrews, David Miller and Paul Newman. Its visual noise is a discordant symphony, a Frankenstein like bolting together of jagged and gestural energy, sugar coated colour schemes and brooding dark matter.

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

Genesis 11:1-9 New International version

The Tower of Babel and its biblical and historical art reference points is a cornerstone for this work. It is structured into what appears to be a haphazardly precarious tower, with the artist’s work joining together and overlapping, speaking simultaneously and over each other. It nods to the Old Testaments narrative of the workers on the Tower of Babel being transformed into tribes speaking independent languages. An initial confusion of competing and jostling leads into finding a degree of poise and awkward harmony in something that is not complete, that has a potential for change and evolution.

The coming together of the artists involved was instigated by artist / curator David Miller, the director of Terrace art gallery in Birmingham. Housed in the listed Victorian ‘Great Western Arcade’, the first home for Terrace was originally designed as a programme of window installations, set into to the complex and elegant polygon structured window bay of an empty shop unit. In its concept, design and programming, David intentionally blurred the line between artist and curator. His sensibility for the visually dramatic, performative and evocatively sensual has led to a personal selection of artists with which to align, creating an independent island within a sea of revisited conceptualism and minimalism.

During 2012 individual installations by Ian Andrews and Paul Newman at Terrace were part deconstructed slices of artists’ studios, part gallery show, given a new aesthetic imbedded between sheets of glass of the already intricate shop front. The lighting, reflections and refractions added elements of the virtual to already complex physical forms of the artists’ work.

The glass and perspex cased work of Ian Andrews led to the discussion about recreating an essence of the Terrace shop front gallery as a cabinet of curiosities for Sluice. As the idea and prototype installation developed it naturally took on a life of its own, and what evolved was a more organic, and on first appearances, unwieldy structure. A full on cacophony of expression, ‘Babelling’ reflects these artists interests in cubism, surrealism and performance and has led to an unclassifiable work that is much a mixed media drawing as it is a sculpture.  It is embedded with painting and painted surfaces, digital portals and beguiling darkroom photography. Each of the artists is represented as themselves as well being limbs and organs of the whole beast. They have their own voices but are singing from the same cramped page. Within a surface of chaos there is for the viewer an intricate order to interpret and intriguing paths to take.


Paul Newman 2013