Musing On the Natural World, John Newling's Exhibition The Fall Is Now Showing at Beam Gallery

Words: Esme Rose Marsh
Wednesday 25 January 2023
reading time: min, words

The latest exhibition at Beam Editions, John Newling: The Fall, provokes heightened awareness to the ways in which we interact with the living things that surround us and asks us to not turn away — but to look at them with the dignity they deserve…


It’s hard to not have the environment on the mind during these perversely cold days, but Nottingham-based artist John Newling has been in conversation with the natural world for the past fifty years. Considering his garden a studio, Newling’s work enshrines the natural forms that can otherwise pass us by relatively unnoticed in our day-to-day lives. 

Commanding an entire gallery wall, A Library of Ecological Conversations consists of 36 panels of leaves, paint and foil leaf in gold, silver and copper. The leaves themselves were once assembled into the construction of these works but later removed to become abstract vestiges of nature. Ghost-like remnants emerge in the leaves' place, transcending the earthly works into something more ethereal. The results appear less concerned with an aesthetic expectation; rather, they delight in the ways the layers and materials interact with one another — each one of the 36 unique with feeling. Individually, the panels are poetic, but as an installation they are evocative of nature as an uncontainable, shape-shifting thing. Pieces that relay tranquillity are side-by-side with ones that feel like a storm descending over a weather map; complex and intense. As your eyes move along the surface of one hot-pressed paper piece to another, you are a witness to nature’s constant flux itself.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, leaves are visible in more tangible ways. Scrunched-up ‘paper balls’ made from cherry tree leaves connote human carelessness in preserving nature. You can almost imagine a performance piece in which these sculptures are tossed out of the window of a car, littering the streets. The paradox is that the artist looks to have taken great care forming and manipulating the delicate material into solidified shapes — even though they look as if they could uncoil at any moment. A similar contradiction occurs in Playing a Sentence, a series of six objects including a paper plane, fan and mobile phone made from leaves. The objects look both newly glossy and dried out, as if they are ancient relics pulled from the past. In both of these works, play is a prevailing factor and despite the wary undertones of the show and its comments on our lack of respect for the environment, Newling’s desire to experiment and understand natural forms is infectiously optimistic. 

The precise execution of these incredibly intricate drawings is one thing, but the construction of them as geometric ideas is another thing altogether

Newling’s motivations can also be charted in the colourful early drawings that date back to 1978 and 1979 — completed during his time at Chelsea School of Art. Concerned with the realms of human consciousness, the drawings in graphite and ink showcase that the artist’s interest has always occurred in the moral as well as the ecological. Whether it’s in these early DNA helix drawings, the books written or the recent blanket of gilded leaves infused with emotive metaphors, Newling’s work across the last fifty years has always posed the question of why we do what we do in nature. 

The precise execution of these incredibly intricate drawings is one thing, but the construction of them as geometric ideas is another thing altogether. It’s hard to fathom how one could create something so mosaic in the mind to then transfer it to paper. In this sense, the artist’s technique in this traditional medium is undeniable and clearly created a strong principal foundation for the more conceptual work he would go on to create in subsequent years. 

Though we are each infinitely connected to and surrounded by nature, it is easy to forget such amidst the blue light and demands of daily life. By spending time in conversation with John Newling’s natural forms, consciously witnessing their rise and fall, we are reminded that nature has its own language too and is asking us to listen.

The Fall is on display at Beam Editions until Sunday 5 March

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