An Eclipse Between Coin and Leaf (Jersey Kale), 2011-2012
Walking through town in the evening, towards the Contemporary, the streets are scattered with steam. A burst pipe has closed the road and engineers work through the evening to bring things to close it off. The air rushing from the rock is dramatic. Its energy clouds the shabby visage of Vicky Centre as the mist creeps through the crowds, as if on a train from the underworld.
An under-occupied mind might be all that it took to turn this scene mystical but these moments of flurried animation and life scramble for our attention all the time. I rarely spare the time to reflect in this way, which is something John Newling appears to have done throughout his career. His work explores the minutiae in our atmosphere and natural world. His appearance at the Contemporary delves further into the conspicuous beauty of the simplest chemical reactions and growths.
Newling is the first Nottingham artist to receive a seasonal show here, which marks a milestone for the city and gallery’s collaborative power. Newling has enjoyed recognition and a career dating back to the 1970s but it’s still a hopeful start for 2013 for local art to receive this endorsement. The question is, does Newling do a worthwhile job?
This will hinge on your appreciation of that first paragraph’s sentiment. His imagination and insights are set alight by mundane, slow occurrences like the moulding of a coin or the build of a cash point. Newling invests so much time inspecting such small details that you really have to be wired into his state of mind to have the patience to interrogate his findings.
And ‘findings’ is perhaps the right word to describe how his content ends up displayed. The way in which it has been curated has a lot more clinical and stable atmosphere than prior exhibitions; in many ways it’s more like something you’d expect to see in a museum. Each piece has a “did you know” factor, with work and installations accompanied by a revelation happened upon by the artist.
Fall Pressed, 2012
Take for example in shorthand his collection surrounding the degeneration of copper money (stick with me). A display across one wall shows that removing the waste from a coin lowers its weight, and that difference has a value. Before you start scraping around for manky penny pieces you need to realise it’s a miniscule estimation. But there are several accompanying photographs and installations, visualising that waste and aging residue (the former Wishes (1998) Coated Wish (1995), the latter Well (1995)).
This work examines how neglect towards finer details often costs something valuable worth sparing. It’s a view that appears to support a project he did in 2006, transforming the interior of a disused church into a centre of ecological research. In a collection of photos you can see how the growth of these plants wields new life from the light and open space offered by the old building. People can be seen flocking here where they had once grown to ignore it. Even the title of the show the Ecologies of Value argues that answering to the natural cycles of life and paying more attention to our immediate surroundings offers a hand to help us all.
John Newling: Riddler's Jacket
Some of the other points Newling makes could seem a little more laboured. Common Sense (2011) where a stack of copies of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man help balance a pile of “constructed soils” (dirt balls) is probably the most striking. There’s a refreshing lucidity to most of his work and an economy to how he uses materials to make his arguments, so when he uses louder props it might come across as a little clumsier.
You might end up thinking there’s a little too much prevaricating as well. Newling requires an attitude that appreciates how art can help reinvigorate a point that has already repeated many times by scientists, politicians and activists. It’s an engaging dialogue but it hinges on how far you can appreciate this in context; and the meaning of a litany of mould collected in a basin.
It’s an intriguing start for the gallery and surely a thrill for the Notts art scene to see a local name headlining the first 2013 show. This is a picture of the sort of political, abstract and narrative work that’s been driving the community for the past few years. It takes some unpicking at first but given the right time and a head full of steam, Ecologies of Value, possesses a wealth of absorbing material and good ideas. Go see it with a clear and attentive mind.