Elizabeth Newman

Compassrose Gallery

Elizabeth Newman’s sculptural objects fetishize memory; they reek of a kind of precious poignancy that teeters precariously on the edge of solipsism. Her art is one of poetic embalming, a dreamy but determined descent into memory and recollection. Newman characteristically retrieves an object that has a personal, spiritual, or metaphorical aura, intervenes to augment the quality that attracted her, and presents the resulting artifact in an encasement that estheticizes it, enhancing its particular aura of meaning.

Untitled (Bovine Eggs), (all works 1990), assembles a collection of oval calcified hair balls removed from the stomachs of dead cows. These puzzling items, found by Newman in an apothecary in Chicago’s Chinatown, can be used in the preparation of traditional medicinal soups. Exploding with resonant ambiguities, their existence, name, use, appearance, and history all strain our everyday sense of reality. Newman places the bovine eggs in a hemispherical wire basket, and seals the combine in a cherry-wood and glass vitrine placed atop a metal pedestal. Her manner of presentation suggests a dusty curio shop or an overlooked display case in a natural history museum. Newman wants to share her discoveries with us; she seeks to focus and channel the viewer’s attention, fostering a delighted and thoughtful state of wonder.

There can be a cloying air of forced archaism to Newman’s effort; she included the predictable litany of rusting metal, felt, wax, sepia-colored objects, vellum, stained wood, old glass bottles, and wooden cases galore, creating a kind of brownish sameness of setting and solution that ultimately proved distracting. Memory can become clichéd too, and at moments Newman’s desire to enhance the psychic charge of her objects seems precious. She seeks a state of simultaneous presence and echo, and sometimes this balance is difficult to manage.

Newman uses wax as a binding element in several of these objects, and it is not surprising that she chooses a tallow, fatty, almost greasy yellowish wax. Its dull sheen obscures rather than enhances, acting as a kind of transitory sediment or veil through which we scan for hints of meaning. Untitled (Underbelly), 1990, exhibits the bottom of a turtle shell frozen in a sea of wax, its corporeality in flux, its history both arrested and exposed. It is a gesture aimed at circumscribing the shifting sands—the perpetual rhythms—of life and mortality.

James Yood