Joshua Neustein
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On Laconic Violence
by Jaromir Jedlinski

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events he sees one single catastrophe. which keeps piling wreckage upon wreck-age and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel
would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make who e what is smashed. But a storm is blowing gum Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with Such
, violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what s called progress.
Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History"
[1]

At the heart of Joshua Neustein's work is history, which is made from the substance of his dialectical imagination rather than the narrative woven from his life experiences. This New York artist's work is the result of a synthesis of shifted identities, carto-graphic alterations, excerpts from his chronicles in Israel, Western and Central Europe, and America. Artist and cultural wanderer, Neustein's syncretic context reflects on the drama of modern history.
Operating in the vast realms of spatial metaphor, Neustein has made intelligence the substance of his work. This intelligence takes form in divergent materials, artistic procedures, and modes of being. Neustein's dialectical imagination codifies visual information in a number of ways. While his stylistic approach is often minimalist, and occasion-ally suggests semantic zero-value, his manual process is full of emphatic gestures of removal, dis-placement, folding, reversal, tracing, gouging, tear-ing, and scraping. These performative attacks on the raw material of art link the concrete particulars of Neustein's history to their very immediacy, putting them, so to speak, before connotation or naming.

By intelligence I mean that which stands opposed to erudition, intellectual speculation, philo-sophical or linguistic criticism; that which is

opposed to the analytical approach Hesse termed the "glass bead game." I invoke artists such as Michael Craig Martin, Robert Wilson, Daniel Buren, Jaroslaw Kozlowski, Dani Karavan (specifically his Passages devoted to the memory of Walter Benjamin in the Catalan town of Port Bou), Liam Gillick, and Krzysztof Wodiczko as Neustein's col-leagues in intelligence. The coordinates of the intel-ligent substance of Neustein's art span the geogra-phy of individual positioning and dislocation; home-lessness and kinship; domestication and exile. In his art the history of individual existence opposes the historical traces of being; choice confronts necessity; memory implicates projections; particu-larity contrasts universality; amnesia contradicts reminiscence. For Neustein, these opposites may, in fact, be non-exclusionary. They may not even stand in opposition. Rather, these terms, lurking in a relational semantic structure, mark and disfigure one another.

These properties apply primarily to his works on, against, or in paper. Declaring that his art is about removal, transference, exile, limits, the con-dition of alienation, and that the aesthetics derived from these conditions infuse his works physically and linguistically, Neustein's approach to paper seems to have become a self-sustaining reality in both the cultural and philosophical sense. In this sense, Neustein's art constitutes an atlas of places and moments of experience particular to the events in question. Accordingly, the artist uses maps, plans, and archival material to emphasize the dialectic between the anarchic and archivist sides of his personality.

Neustein's attitude toward the spatio temporal coordinates of existence has a clear ethical or humanist undercurrent, since it interprets human behavior with regard to places and history. One thinks again of Walter Benjamin, who wrote in 1940 that "In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from conformism that is about to overpower it."[2] Joshua Neustein is ,not simply a witness, but an active participant in the conflicts of this world.

Speaking of his work, Irit Rogoff wrote: While not wanting to privilege biography as an analytical tool, one must neverthe-less recognize the degree to which moving bor-ders and shifting identities in the art correlate with the artist's own itinerant history. The map began in 1980 with the intention to map out the whole world as a form of twenty-first century landscape. To begin with, the maps seem to be charting out a geography of the heart, since many of them have w their center the city of Danzig, Neustein's birth-place, and the point from which he set out to become a 'refugee from the world,' as he puts it. The city of Danzig, which he set up as a kind of medieval Coeur du Monde, is placed within vast expanses of unspecified and undifferentiated European and Asian terrain.3

But it is not enough that history creates Neustein's imagery; nor are the traces of his imagery simply a narrative. It is his dialectic between the structures of history and his own narratives that becomes, through his processes, art. Neustein's intelligence suggests that the con-formism referred to by Benjamin is a source of endless "disjointed times," or the ceaseless state of emergency that is emblematic of this expiring century, in which history has transformed geogra-phy by repeatedly driving multitudes from their homes. Consequently, Neustein named the work he made in 1990 for the Barbican Arts Centre in London, How History Became Geography. History and geography fix the coordinates of the artist's aesthetics and creative practice, just as they are the cross on which individual and collective fates have been spread throughout the twentieth centu-ry. Any ethical art must take them into account. As another artist, interpreter of creation and creator of

the esthetics and ethics of participation, Albert Schweitzer, once said, "We must all shoulder the burden of pain weighing down on the world. "4

Neustein's works on paper, the Carbon Series, Magnetic Field Drawings, and Polish Forests, do away with superfluity. These exceptionally laconic works engender art as a brooding threat, an implicit pledge of violence that is crystallized in the artist's work as both an aesthetic and ethical position. They represent an understanding of shared responsibility and are the product of identifying creation with radi-cality and a supra-personal, objective directness. Neustein's drawings, which employ the negatively- charged processes of abrading, folding, tearing, and concealing, are born out of the Liaison Dangerous between history and geography, where a brooding threat wreaks havoc on temporary, episodic life, with the mythic sublime as only a small consolation. The artist's laconic voice is a suppression, a denial, a conspiracy, a pledge of violence. Such a trance or compulsion is often associated with sex, and is also experienced by shoplifters, gamblers, drug users, stunt men, and others mesmerized by pleasure that is achieved through risk. The drawings embody the concept of planned obsolescence, and the may be viewed in such a trance. Viewers become hope-lessly fascinated by the compulsion between termi-nation and eternity, where origin and purpose are stalked by the eroticizing will to history.

These works stand as records of dislocation. The ability to describe the unavoidable may pro-duce hope or hopelessness, but it inevitably dis-pels illusion. Neustein, who traces his philosophical roots to the Enlightenment, unifies experience by reconciling cognition and knowl-edge. A fundamental trait of his art is its profound-ly manual character--its palpability and tangibility. Touch is not a sense "but a doing before hearing, a making before seeing"5 that achieves the appropri-ate clarity of expression but which also constructs a thing of beauty. The Magnetic Field Drawings have a limited life span that is defined by the ero-sion of strips of magnetized linoleum attached to the back of the sheet of paper. The iron filings organized by this magnetic current form barbed images of fragmented metal that erode and ulti-mately terminate. In the context of the Magnetic Field Drawings it is not possible to distinguish what separates the territory of the artist from that of the viewer; viewer and artist may in fact not be dealing with an oppositional relationship at all, but with two unconnected properties. Neustein's work process runs from the head to the hands, which is why the dominant manual provides the shape and meaning of his art. This question was raised by Jeremy Gilbert Rolfe, who pointed out that Neustein's "form and content (rhetoric and narra-tive) are unified." 6

The Polish Forests drawings employ the nega-tive tactics of abrasion. Scraping away his thick paper surfaces with a wire brush, Neustein

reflects the tension between the inclination to con-struct and preserve meaning and the tendency to obliterate that same meaning. Like the drawings in the Carbon Series, which have been made by fold-ing and tearing layers of carbon paper and regular paper, the artist explores the propensity for vio-lence that has widely been perceived as the chief feature of our experiential reality. Breaching the boundaries established by conventions of drafts-manship, Neustein oscillates between anarchical and archival positions. Two recent large-scale installations expound on this polarity. Both The Possessed Library (David Koresh), which was made as part of the National Library Archives for the Israeli Pavilion at the 1995 Venice Biennale, and Light on the Ashes, presented in 1996 at the Southeastern Center of Contemporary Art, 'Winston- Salem, fulfill, to use Arthur Danto's term, the "transfiguration" of the artist's materials into his anarchist/archivist antithesis. The works on paper included in this exhibition are discussed by several voices in this publication. Raphael Rubinstein, poet & associate editor of Art in America, writes on the Carbon Series; Owen Drolet, a young contributor for Flash Art, focuses on the Magnetic Field Drawings; and Maia Damianovic who contributes to Tema Celeste and Art Press , writes here on the PolishForests series.

II
I should like to provide a few comments on how :ea of a Neustein exhibition in Poland originated and how that reality came to pass. There are places In which the experience of dislocation and displacement, refuge and exodus is made poignantly clear. These places have in various times and circumstances been considered a promised land. Marking out a geography of hope, these places have become identified with alien -as well as the renewal of traditions, through immigration or emigration. Prominent among such places that promise shelter and the mitigation of the pain of displacement are New York, Jerusalem and Lodz. The project to bring Joshua Neustein's work to Poland, the country of his birth, originated and was implemented within this triangle of syn-cretic cities.

I first met the artist and the exhibition co-organizer Wendy Shafir in the Jerusalem home of the collector Ayala Sachs Abramov in the spring of 1993, and we subsequently developed the con-cept and logistics for Neustein's exhibition in Lodz. Meeting many times in Lodz, Jerusalem, and at the artist's SoHo New York studio, we decided to show three series of his works on paper at the Muzeum Sztuki in Lodz in the Autumn of 1996. For a num-ber of reasons, the Neustein exhibition could not be held in this venue, but with the artist's consent, and thanks to the good will of director Anda Rottenberg, the Zacheta Gallery of Contemporary Art Warsaw will present the exhibition of works on paper, photo documentation of installations.

Disinheritance is central to human experience. The content and form of Neustein's art, as well as its participation in the life of art and the history of the present project, combine to form a symbolic, and, I trust, fruitful effort to investigate the cultural experience as well as the human state of disinheri-tance. Benjamin's Angelus Novus would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what is smashed, but he fails. Perhaps Walter Benjamin himself is the modernist angel, and by analogy for the purposes of this essay Neustein is that trans-figured spirit. In this double displacement we understand why the syncretic Angelus Novus could not have failed to stop the storm or close his wings, unless some preexisting taboo was seething underneath, both invoking and haunting a future.7

Jaromir Jedlinski Lodz Poland March 1997



[1] Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History"[1] Illuminations Harry Zohn, trans London Fontana Press 1992 p.249

[2] ibid.

3 Irit Rogoff "The Discourse of Exile -Geographies and Representation of Identities" Journal of Philosophy and Visual Art vol.1, July 1989 70-76

4 Albert Schweitzer, Bach

5 Paul DeMan Allegories of Reading, Yale Univ Press. NH and London 1979

6 Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, "Joshua Neustein: Fragile, massive Gray Torn Impermanent" Artforum 1978 p.54-60

7 Paul DeMann Ibid., "The Outer objective event in the world was supposed to determine the inner, conscious event, as cause determines effect. It turns out that what was assumed to be the objective external is itself is itself a result of the internal." p.107


Jaromir Jedlinski, director Muzeum Sztuki Łodzi Poland and Foksal Gallery Warsaw, Poland March 1997.