joshua neustein texts
Longing: Enacted, Joshua Neustein's Polish Forests
by Maia Damianovic

The key image in Joshua Neustein's most recent works on paper acts in the nature of an intrusion. Inspired by the artist's stay in his native Poland in 1993, Neustein's white-on-white drawings, titled "Polish Forests" at first glance present a finely rendered reductive field. But as we begin to discriminate between two distinct aspects of surface, the smooth and the striated, a singular refrain breaks out: an abrasion disrupts the underlying chromatic and compositional asceticism. Neustein causes the abrasion by scraping the surface with hard metal brushes, mutilating the delicate fiber and fluffing the pulp. The material distress invests both form and content in an elliptical play of poetic reversals. The scraping process is a figure of negativity: an ultimate disengagement of form from itself, peeling away like bark or the way pulp is separated in paper manufacturing. In contradictory manner, it also suggests a gesture of reconstitution, as if through the disruptive action, the implied landscape of "Polish Forests" was being given a second metaphorical life reinserted back into the paper, which it gave life to.

Abrasion in "Polish Forests" is a material and semantic intrusion. It murmurs with desire. Haunted by inner contradictions, the image of intrusion releases a dramatic catharsis. Based on paradox: it reminisces on the unknowable. It works as a process interference, as a formal measure of elision, while also acting as highly personal intervention. Coalescing spontaneity, with formal and expressive intent, a territory of minuscule marks, tears and abrasions structures a dramatic entrance into the process of signification. The intrusive image in "Polish Forests" constitutes a conceptual event: visual immediacy evolves into a complex reflection. Abrasion attempts to reconcile materiality with representation. In differential tension with its monochromatic surroundings, the intrusive image reaches outward from the reductive consistency of the picture plane to suggestively advance a vaguely figurative dimension. Crossing the pure white surface, this micro-topology of tiny, understated effects inspires a surreptitious moment that beckons to be deciphered, while in troubling, contradictory manner, it levitates above language enfolding a non-verbal instability. Caught in the exchange between the literal and the figurative, the image of abrasion calls our attention to its role as an enactment of representation, but, in a way, it still remains                  

a highly privileged dialogue

                         a representation that cannot be represented [1]

                         it appears, it slips away

Abrasion is a sign of breaching and erasing; it invites and resists a transcendental reading. In a struggle for more expressive valence, it embraces an incoherent visual language that prefers obfuscation to clarity. Process cum artifice compels aesthetic recognition, but only offers an indecisive signifying possibility. Aesthetic and semantic correspondences are left deliberately intermediary and synthetic. The surface disturbance challenges the sufficiency of our interpretation. Corporal, yet atmospheric, these drawings propose a tense link between material thingness and a transcendent ideality that unveils a horizon of experience.

Abrasion inscribes a site of trouble. Weaving in and out of our vision, these material stirrings disturb the aesthetic determination of form. Elusive, at times only a flicker, the intrusive image appears as it slips away. Conflict- ridden, dubiously balanced between visibility and invisibility, between a promise of meaning and its withdrawal, the refrain of abrasion leads us into an ephemeral, perplexing realm. Difficult to name, outside the circumscription of language, other times lucid and clear, it shakes the premises of formal, epistemic and aesthetic clarity and remains a discretionary correspondence. By virtue of its phenomenological resistance, it frustrates our attempts at placing form into an objective domain. The tension among thinking, perception and imagination remains unresolved. Continually, our efforts at creating meaning are thwarted as our perception slips in and out of a simple transcendent materiality. Our perception and imagination become entangled, as we enter into a discreet dialogue with the image of intrusion. We begin to question whether the refrain of abrasion is indeed a credible illusionary artifice or simply an after-effect of process—a whimsical invention of an overworked imagination. As if jesting us on, the image of abrasion seems to ask:

Were you thinking that those were words, those upright lines:

      Those curves, angles and dots:[2]

The drama of "Polish Forests" plays out two incompatible impulses—the archivist's wish to preserve meaning and the anarchist's desire to destroy it. Neustein's contribution to this correspondence is to offer a complex communiqué between personal creative monologue and a more public aesthetic. By enfolding an obsessive, private function with a conceptual visibility, the artist proposes the conflict between the two as a tantalizing upheaval. Meaning is present only by implication. Subtly, the disturbed, abraded fabric of paper wears down formal evidence into something mercurial. Everything — practice, concept, knowledge, interpretation, -- falls into a black hole. Located somewhere among quixotic formal, semantic and interpretative recesses, the intrusive image welcomes inconsistency and remains an evasive presence,

      a perpetual possibility — Only in a world of speculation.[3]

Smoothness deviates not only into material striation but also into a speculative visual discourse that raises the problem of recognition and conveyance of subjective and ideological positions within the confines of an elusive pictorial realm. Much too evasive to be termed a rhetorical device, the almost lexical visual dissemination of abrasions fragilely transcends process spontaneity to suggestively convey authorial consciousness. While abrogating any guarantee of underlying intent, the persistent return of these markings identifies them as an act of deliberation. The charged, destructive vitality of abrasions achieves an eye- catching expressive valence that transcends a purely formal relation or condition of process and brings us to the border of an emotionally charged moment. Its visibly violent negativity of execution embodies the integrity of determination: Neustein uses abrasion as an artifice of poetic conveyance for the sake of a viewer.

      But, what stories or histories does it offer:

In its drive toward the visible, the intrusive image ventures beyond its role as a simple sign and becomes a hyper sign capable of immense poetic fluctuation. Ambiguously, elusively, the real (process materiality), the imaginary and the symbolic all flow together in its small but distinct figure. Suggesting an analogy to something organic and moving, this surface evanescence unsettles into waves of fleeting imaginative and symbolic possibilities. If not quite a catastrophe, the semantic dissemination of the image of abrasion announces a crisis of conveyance. Close to what Lévi Strauss called a "floating signifier," one whose role is to permit symbolic thought to operate in spite of the contradiction that is proper to it, the intrusive image triggers an aura of imaginary fictions that open the surface to a vast terrain of readings. As if every time we return to look, everything in the world can be changed into something else. [4]We begin to pay attention to the smallest of surface movements and details. In "Polish Forests" form and interpretation both become a matter of imaginative interpretative siting, connected to cartography, coordination and charting. If not quite maps, these striated drawings seem to be charting an illusionary visual language of cartographic credibility.[5] Not an unthinkable interpretation when considering the artist's self-admitted love for the landscape, a passion cultivated throughout his extensive body of work.

In 1974, on the day of the Yom Kippur War began (sometimes referred to as the October War), I resided in a beautiful estate with seventy trees in my yard. I gathered the Autumn pine needles, branches and comes. I wrote a text and sent it to my dealer, that if I come back from the war I will separate the foliage and exhibit it in a Tel Aviv Gallery. I returned in November and mounted the installation: "the Sound of Pine cones Opening in the Sun," which consisted of three piles of foliage: branches, pine cones, pine needles and a cassette with the tiny bursting sounds of seeds popping out of the pine cones in the sun.

J. Neustein, fax to M. Damianaovic, July 1996

Similarly, in "Polish Forests" the intrusive image maps a personal poetics of place and identity. Neustein's topology of abrasions re-humanizes the drawing surface. Unlike the more permanent and emphatic presence of the gesture or mark in conventional drawing, the abraded surface suggests a highly sensitized aggravated site. Unfolding from the blank screen of monochromatic reductivism into an expressive field of charged visual instances, delicate tears and tactile textural variations, these drawings lead us to an exquisitely individuated place imbued with emotion. The abraded surface transforms the materiality of form into a sublime immateriality. Abrasion in these drawings embodies duality. It leaves both its physical and emotional imprint as it drifts between an outwardness and an inwardness of expression. In "Polish Forests" the outer physical action protects a psychic innerness: at once connected with the violent and aggressive action of abrasion, its delicate formalism also generates a sense of spirituality and suggests a fragile distancing from the purely physical act. Elliptically staging time and space, abrasion at once exists within an infinite subjective depth and remains entrenched in an objective present. Time present and time past -- What might have been and what has been — Point to one end, which is always present.[6]

My ties and ballasts leave me, my elbows rest in sea gaps, I skirt Sierras, my palms over continents — I am afoot with my vision.[7]

Abrasion embodies transcendence. Physical and semantic intrusion are transformed into a psychic disturbance. In one dream- like moment, when we suspend our disbelief, Neustein's gesture of abrasion bonds with our own psychic innerness. These violent material transgressions allow a sentient, emotional conveyance: they make us painfully sensitive to their and our own incompleteness. Experienced in such highly subjective human terms the intrusive image gains a touching, emotional presence. From within this slippery ground of interpretation, abrasion in "Polish Forests" calls the viewer to intuit the agitation of the pictorial field as an expressive terrain whirling with desires, memories and emotions. Without longing where would you be now?

But, what stories or histories does it tell?

In "Polish Forests" we cannot begin at the beginning. Oscillating formal control and subjective opulence, semantic opaqueness and transcendence, creative monologue and more public aesthetic dialogue, the abraded surface invites fluid, evolving readings. A kinetic image, abrasion announces the moment of narrative dispersal, replete with dreams, splittings, musings, incompletions.[8] It invites incessant substitutions. Moving from the obvious to the most subtle, from material to representational and finally to psychic intrusion, the abrasive image implicates us in a flood of unstable moments of identity. Its refrain at once suggests a tragic, a pathetic and hopeful poetic. Among its erasures and undoings, memory and forgetting, loss and redemption, the artist's and our own, intertwine in an inconstant dramaturgy.

Wherever we are: in a text already where we believe ourselves to be.[9]

Does abrason simply attempt to reconcile representation and materiality or does using steel, instead of sable brushes, imply a broader risk of "life, limb and history"? does it inscribe the figure of the self enfolding into a myriad of possibilities? Is the abraded surface nostalgically fixed to a specific site, perhaps a forest landscape in Neustein's native Poland, as the title of the series would suggest, or is it a poetic allusion to a more metaphorical place of the Self? At times the abrasions in "Polish Forests" seem to resemble tree bark or the arborescent tops of a forest seen from a bird's-eye or satellite view, but this delicate imagery could just as easily reverse out of its representational reading to trace a more elusive place of psychic innerness. Is the repetitive act of scraping an expression of amnesiacal desire, an attempt at forgetting — erasing something that was, even if only as a presence in the imagination? Or is it a reworking of some past event, an echo of a past remembered — a retracing of an imaginary or real forest of Neustein's past? As violent as its implications may seem, the act of abrasive erasure could equally well prepare a clearing for some hopeful re-figuration, perhaps a moment of existential transcendence. Is the trauma of its execution only congruent with pain, negativity and deprivation? Does the traumatic image just want to convey an aching innerness or does it also embody a desire to reverse a situation of negativity by securing a hold over some fundamental loss; does it abandon sadness to advance a possible reconciliation of the collective Self with the violence of a personal history? Is the abrasive act a personal or public memoir? Does it wish to inscribe a more public indictment — of cultural amnesia, historical accountability, or, perhaps, forgiveness? Does the defacement of the drawing surface imprint a visual autobiography? Displacement is theme and a reality well known to Neustein, a refugee from his native Poland since infancy and before conscious individuation. The artist is no stranger to dislocation, alienation or loss.

As with all images of trauma, the intrusive image is closely linked to doubt and uncertainty.[10] Suspended between fiction and autobiography, overflowing with potentiality, it remains unknowable. Incorporating into itself a conflation of interpretations, it is no less secretive than in a position to disclose.[11] A magnet for our perception and imagination, calling for identification and accumulating a rich variety of narrative instances, it leads us to a glaring white spot of meaning. As if it were a nostalgia that in itself can never become a particularized presence, abrasion becomes a sign of fundamental absence.[12] It remains an image without a truth. We might never know, maybe we are not allowed to know, or maybe we shouldn't know. But, by virtue of its fragile, transient nature, abrasion enriches the situation of "Polish Forests" immeasurably: it enacts a passionate play of seduction and abandonment.

The drama unfolds. Anxious and precarious, the intrusive image leaves its audience lost, but also wanting. It makes them create meaning through extreme projections on the edge of imagination. Mercurial, it expresses a desire for meaning that in turn, it paradoxically abandons. Fugitive, it appears only to disappear into a labyrinth where what had suddenly come forward strangely loses its way.[13]Disingenuous, it often creates a false appearance of simple material frankness. Each drawing depicts one or two trees, only when the suite of drawings are mounted or considered together side by side can they conceivably add up to a forest. Reveling in its own presence, other times guilefully mocking our attempts to locate it, the intrusive refrain expresses, even searches for dramatic conflict. Its complexities suggest a deliberately scripted appeal, a dramatization for the eye of the other. Pinioned on the edge of clarity, the intrusive refrain stages a pathos of existence that suggests that even an essence always has the very annessence of a ghost.[14] Neustein's opulent surface beckons us into an empathetic correspondence with something so evasive that it might not even be there. The surface dramatizes its withdrawal. There is no denouement to this drama of meaning, no surrender to resolution. Artwork and author are only willing to offer obscurities — we are only given a meaning both persistent and fugitive, apparent and evasive.[15] Enticed into the visual and semantic opulence of the surface the viewer will finally be betrayed, denied access into the private reflections, public indictments, or intimate folds of thought and emotion that might reside there. As we enter into a sympathetic intelligence with the refrain of intrusion, an uncomfortable poetic apprehension sets in between the image and our gaze. The curtain comes down and we are left asking: what happened; was it all a creative ruse, a stage effect, an artifice of surreptitious deceit or the voice of impassioned longing.


as always, coherence in contradiction


the force of a desire.[16]

In the midst of this layered confusion, the artifice suggestively advances its fragile allegorical weave. Abrasion becomes meaningful, although its meaning is one that lies in complex and subtle interactions between literal rendition and its symbolic extension.[17] In the extremity of its negativity, the abused body, sheet of paper, enacts a trauerspiel, or literally a mourning play;[18] It enacts a mourning for meaning — or is it for the love, loss, pain that have been left behind somewhere in life. Abrasion also suggests a symbolic enactment of hope. Its wounded presence acknowledges the survivor's wound and proposes the image as an act of atonement, if not of healing, since some wounds can not be healed and some loss can never be fully mourned.[19]In view of this melancholy presence, our perception vacillates, becomes disturbed, but is also deeply moved by its tender appeal. Willingly or not, we surrender to its layered enactments, drifting into something as inaccessible as it seems real, and that we will never resolve except in our own innerness. Profoundly ambiguous, Neustein's artifice encourages a rich dynamics of the imagination. The intrusive image frustrates, demands, creates suspense. Its opaqueness entices. Janus- faced, the artwork becomes mysteriously desirable. Snared by its conflicted poetics, our interpretation remains suspended, but our imagination intensely alive. A sign, perhaps only a fiction of a sign, it perniciously reappears only to recoil back into its secrecy and impress us with haunting incongruity. A specter of blurry disclosures apprehends us in a poetic negotiation between a finite world of meaning and the endless world of the imagination.

Suspended means suspense, but also dependence, condition, conditionality[20]

"Polish Forests" locates itself at the interfacing of a risk, between interpretative suspense and dependence on a viewer, between condition and conditionality of reading. To engage in expressive communication, the artist knowingly surrenders the artwork to the interpretative exigencies of a viewer. In essence, the artwork is completed by the viewer's subjectivity. To allow the artifice of distress transcendence, the artist needs to implicate — is dependent on our imagination as a discretionary co-signatory. Certainly, the inherent presumption of an active viewer in this situation implies an ethical option, but the conflict-ridden way to the Other in these drawings is so elusive that it seems that the notion of risk is as necessary to it as the need to reach a viewer. Abrasion demands a special kind of attention and a special kind of faith in the authenticity of what it enacts from both the artist and the viewer.[21] The viewer can either relate to its presence through their own experience and imagination or not. But, anyone who opens their imagination to the possibilities of the intrusive image, will be drawn more and more deeply into its enigmas and felicities.[22] In its full poetic charge the gesture of abrasion touches us not as a communication, but as fragile dialogue of longing. Its obscurity magically, almost amorously invokes us. It desires us. Rising from the nebulous realm of allegorical imagination, Neustein's gesture of abrasion transcends the abyss of the authorial Self gazing inward on some elusive object of memory and entices us to reach the object of our own memories and desires. The poetic moment of these haunting drawings of discontent resides in this subtle correspondence where the artist's and our own desires become nebulously intertwined in inconsistency. As if it were trying to make visible the invisible fragmentation of the Self,[23] the subtle alchemy of intrusion touches us and dramatizes the drawing as landscape of unfulfilled longing. We are bewitched into its folds of anonymity, as if the ephemeral stirrings were asking us:

      Without longing where would you be now?

Coerced by urgent desire, Neustein is forced to discretely transform a simple gesture of abrasion into a gesture of intense emotional appeal. Linking beauty to mourning, memory to loss and despair to hope, the intrusive image invites us into a most intimate world. Suspended in haunting expressive intensity, it invokes our inner conscience and aspirations, so that we may only wonder if intrusion is exiled in the domain of the unnamable — or

      Is it the enigma of mourning or enigma of beauty?[24]

Most fascinating in this eccentric visuality is the creative will to abandon. Desire remains anguished. Caught in its re-tracings, erasures, abradings, Neustein's refrain places us in touch with something unattainable and unknowable, thus all the more desirable.

      So we have before us love itself objectified in what is loved[25]

[1] Roland Barthes, "The Third Meaning." The Responsibility of Forms, Berkeley: Univ of California Press, 1991, p. 58.

[2] Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, A Signet Classic, Chicago, USA, 1958 p.32

[3] T.S. Elliot, The Complete Poems & Plays, New York Harcourt Brace Co. 1980 p.117 Burnt Norton, Four Quartets.

[4] Annibal de Lortigue, as quoted by Julia Kristeva, Don Juan, or Loving to be Able to, Tales of Love, New York: New York: Columbia University Press, 1987, p. 199.

[5] Irit Rogoff, Mapping Out Strategies of Dislocation, Joshua Neustein, exhibition catalog text, Exit Art, New York, 1987, p. 20.

[6] T.S. Elliott, Burnt Norton. Four Quartets p.117

[7] Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, Leaves of Grass, p. 74

[8] Julia Kristeva. Black Sun, New York: Columbia University Press, 1989, p. 161

[9] Jacques Derrida, Acts of Literature. Routledge, New York and London, 1992, p. 107

[10] Julia Kristeva. Black Sun. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987

[11] readings in Jacques Derrida. Acts of Literature, Routledge, NY, London 1992 p.76 -109

[12] Paul de Man, The Rhetoric of Romanticism, New York: Columbia University Press, 1984, p. 6

[13] Georges Bataille, Visions of Excess, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985, p. 173

[14] Jacques Derrida Diacritics, John Hopkins Univ. Press Baltimore 1996 Archive Fever.

[15] Roland Barthes. The Responsibility of Forms. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985, p. 44

[16] Jacques Derrida, Writing & Difference, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1978,Structure, Sign and Play, p. 279.

[17] Paul Celan, Selected Poems, Introduction by Michael Hamburger

[18] Julia Kristeva, Black Sun, New York: University of Columbia Press, 1987, p. 101.

[19] Paul Celan, Selected Poems, introduction by Michael Hamburger, p. 30

[20] Jacques Derrida, Acts of Literature, Routledge, New York, London: Routledge, 1992, p. 48

[21] Paul Celan, Selected Poems, Introduction by Michael Hamburger, London: Penguin Books, 1972, p. 33

[22] Paul Celan, Selected Poems, introduction by Michael Hamburger, London: Penguin Books, 1972, p. 34

[23] Irit Roghoff, Journal of Philosophy and the Visual Arts, Vol. 1, 1988, pp. 70-76.

[24] Julia Kristeva, Black Sun, New York, Columbia University Press, 1987, p. 98

[25] G.W.F. Hegel, as quoted in Hegel on the Arts, Henry Paolucci, editor, New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, 1979, p. 108.