Dana Newmann: In the Realm of Surrealism

Susan Wider | THE magazine - August 26, 2014

Is there anything out there that Dana Newmann can't use in her art?

 Dana Newmann, Memento Mori Curiosity Cabinet, 24”w x 21”h x 6”d, 2010

My work is built from the ephemera of everyday life. –Dana Newmann

There are tiny charms hiding in her collages. There are pages from music manuscripts and dictionaries. Animal teeth, marbles, political campaign buttons; nothing is off limits. And it isn’t really that she repurposes these things. It’s more like a rescue operation. I look at her work, whether it’s the framed collages, the shadow boxes, the curiosity cabinets, or an altered book retelling of a Max Ernst novel, and I see a million little details from my own history. Isn’t that a game piece from Monopoly hiding in that collage? Wait, didn’t I have a tiny pocketknife like that once? (I gave it to Barbie; it was her size.) And the vintage photographs are just like those of my great-grandparents.

Newmann has an interest in the history of art, and the pieces in the show’s front room are collages reworked from history. She has taken pages from a reprint of Max Ernst’s 1934 surrealist graphic novel, "Une semaine de bonté," and collaged bits and pieces of cutout images onto the original pages to create a new feminist reading of the novel. In addition to the three framed single pages on the walls, we can also page through the entire book (conservator’s gloves provided) which rests on a nearby lectern and contemplate Newmann’s use of strategically placed cutouts of snakes and vegetables. On one page a man’s head has been replaced by an octopus. On another, a woman’s breast has a giant radish pasted onto it. It’s not so much ton sur ton as it is vintage sur vintage. I won’t be able to use old-timey clip art now without thinking of Newmann’s feminist treatise.

The gallery’s middle room contains three curiosity cabinets, several wall-mounted shadow boxes, and a demi skull. The skull is an assemblage entitled Sagittal and is perhaps the most interesting of this group of items because the search for what’s inside is ridiculously fun. The skull rests on its right cheek, like a bowl. Everything is Clorox-white and at first the contents look like a bleached brain—the right brain in this case. Closer inspection reveals tiny bits and pieces of, once again, rescued treasures. There are many types of animal teeth, a wishbone, small animal skulls, tiny jaws, and the occasional hand or leg from an antique china doll. It’s hard to stop hunting in there for other things we might recognize.

Inspired by sixteenth century cabinets of curiosities, Newmann’s cabinets are also great fun to explore—and this time touching is allowed, no gloves necessary. The cabinets are beautifully planned and are found objects, not built. For "Memento Mori Curiosity Cabinet," whose title is written on an oversized luggage tag tied to the handle, the cabinet might have been an old doll trunk or a traveling salesman’s sample case. Inside are milagros, old books, a child’s shoe, antique spoons, and five wooden fish hanging mobile-like in front of what was once a gorgeous flower-painted clock face. Plenty of story elements here. The Surrealist’s Cabinet of Wonders features a bright green wooden suitcase and its title is hand- lettered in white onto black piano keys glued to an outside edge of the case. Just like the wall pieces, the cabinets are like three dimensional collages and should also be read like ever- shifting stories. Newmann has been a collector of treasures throughout her life and using them in her art is what she describes as a way to “honor the objects but at the same time pass them along into life.”

The gallery’s largest room holds nearly two-dozen framed collages, “psychological studies,” and “dialogues.” In much of Newmann’s art, she offers us the tools to tease out a story, or even several. Her philosophy is that the work should be read like books, and then reread to glean even more detail from the elements, or to come up with a whole new story. In A Matter of Physics she gives us page one of a musical score, a letter-E stencil, part of an ornate picture frame, and a little cluster of green European postage stamps. From these superimposed elements, the story possibilities are endless. The Dialogue photographic pairings are pure cleverness and creativity. In "Dialogue IV" we find two nineteenth-century photographs called cabinet cards. The photos are of two young women, obviously sisters. Newmann has hand-lettered onto each photo a conversation about sibling rivalry where the sister on the left touts her status as firstborn and the sister on the right boasts about being prettier and thinner. In Dialogue V the entire conversation among the pictured individuals takes place through collaged fortune cookie inserts. "Fire" is a somewhat simpler collage, but with big impact. One day while cutting up an old dictionary and tossing the pieces onto the embers of a dying fire, Newmann retrieved the page where the word fire appears. She collaged a second singed page under it and added snippets of burnt-black paper as highlights. The result is eerie and beautiful. Newmann may categorize her work as surrealist, and she’s right, but she also brings us face to face with the grim reality of childhood gone and past treasures lost.