The form of the infinite

Sculptor Peter Newman captures the intersection of city and sky in aluminum


Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “The sky is the daily bread of the eyes.”

If so, then urban man is severely ocularly undernourished. Once broad and punctuated by the occasional construction, the sky has in our lifetime been all but overtaken by buildings — and nowhere moreso than in Tokyo.

In other cities — and you can try this — you rarely have to raise your eyes more that 30 degrees from the horizon to get a glimpse of blue. In Tokyo, the combination of narrow streets and in-your-face architectural density puts that blue up at a neck-wrenching 75 degrees or more.

I hate that, because I love the sky.

Peter Newman also loves the sky. So much so that the British artist has taken it as his main subject matter for some years now. Newman’s latest body of work is called “Skyscapes,” and selections from the series are showing at the Weissfeld Gallery in Roppongi in his first Japanese solo exhibition. (This is the gallery known until recently as Roentgenwerke, and before that as the Roentgen Kunstrum.)

Newman is an affable 36-year-old sculptor who attended Goldsmith’s College but hasn’t let that go to his head. He has had solo shows at swell galleries in London, New York, Hamburg and Brussels, and he participated in the inaugural exhibition at the 21st Century Museum for Contemporary Art in Kanazawa last year.

I caught up with Newman at Paddy Foley’s pub, where we had a beer, and I asked him how on earth anyone could even try to sculpt the sky.

“Yes, the sky is an empty space,” says Newman, “but by virtue of a fisheye [extreme wide-angle] lens pointed straight up from a city intersection, I get a sky view that is finite, because the surrounding architecture defines a shape. So I can see the sky as an object.”

Working from the fisheye photographs, Newman first extracts the sky section, then has this shape cut from a piece of 40-mm thick aluminum. The resulting representations can resemble a Rorschach ink blot. But look closely at “Skyscape of Shinjuku,” and cookie-cut out of the perimeter is the unmistakable twin-tower outline of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government buildings.

There are seven works in the Weissfeld show — Tokyo along with Los Angeles, London and other cities. The pieces naturally have varying dimensions, but average perhaps 30 cm across. They have a good presence on the wall, the density of the aluminum contrasting with the weightlessness of the sky.

“I wanted to turn it to the opposite,” said Newman, “I think it’s almost like an ‘after image’ — like if you look at something for a long time then close your eyes and an inverse image appears there in your mind’s eye.”

In many pieces, a landmark can be identified, and it’s a treat comparing the different Skyscapes. For example, the chaotic layout of Tokyo’s streets and its disparate architecture makes these pieces relatively sharp and dynamic compared to the grid layout of the American cities; and the six roads that lead into London’s Piccadilly Circus give that work a distinctive hexagonal shape.

Complementing the sculptures at the show is a short video loop titled “Kiss the Sky” (2005), which shows the view through the artist’s fisheye lens as it surveys Skyscapes.

Not a religious man, Newman shies from the suggestion that his relationship with the sky might be informed by concepts such as God and heaven. But five years at Salisbury Cathedral School in the west of England did find a young Newman frequently gazing up at a famous spire and the sky beyond it. And he did find inspiration up there, it seems.

“Maybe that’s where I got this,” said Newman. “Anyway, I think looking upwards is all about looking for possibility. So if you’re searching for God, the sky is where you’re going to look.”

I like these works because they reward inspection and contemplation, revealing something both spiritual and brutal through giving form to the infinite, through the conflicted act of wrenching down the sky and slapping it up on a gallery wall.

A funny thing Newman told me was that while he was looking up at and photographing the sky in New York City, that seemingly natural activity attracted security guards from the nearby Seagram Building. “Stop doing that!” they ordered, as if they owned the sky. Emerson would not have been amused.