joshua neustein texts
Changing Landscape
by Carlo McCormick

With each act of creative expression, the artist locates him or herself in relationship to the surrounding world. Artistic vision is fundamentally no different than any other sort of perception. Every work of art unavoidably says something about where it is looking, what it is looking at, and where it is looking from. Regrettably, it is considered some vile, critical "no-no" to reduce art to such glib terms. However, if for the moment we can allow ourselves this consideration of art as it is usually, without being so concerned about the multitude of exceptions, it is possible that we may see in this, the simple beauty of what's so complicated in Neustein's art. For over twenty years, Neustein's art has been an odd index of conceptual gestures focused on a number of different issues. Yet, every change in what and where Neustein looks is traced some more in the larger pattern of how he sees things and why.

    Neustein is too sly and enigmatic a performer to give up art's sense of mystery for the sake of supplying answers. Adamantly adverse to accepting one correct reading for any of his work, Neustein's manner of perception fixes its sights on emotionally and intellectually loaded points of converging perspective, without ever stating his own point of view. The emphasis is not on what to see but on ways of seeing. In this way, Neustein's artistic landscape is an existentialist topography of process and multiplicity. He has charted this shifting terrain in environmental art, performance, photography, drawing, painting, and sculpture. His art is not about, nor does it reside in, one particular place. It exists, rather, in the spaces between places, as a kinetic geography of transience. Each dramatically distinct phase of Neustein's oeuvre is tempting in its simplicity to be read exclusively within its own terms. The field of experience, however, extends across a broad strata, at times operating only on one level, and other times simultaneously situated on a number of planes. Neustein manufactures waves of cultural interference to outline the treacherous avenues of contradiction and their dislocations and distortions in the surface of meaning. Approximating these fault lines within a vast gridwork of physical and metaphysical orientations, Neustein sows the fertile terrain of reciprocity among the divided regions of geographic, linguistic, political, emotional, geological and artistic significance.


Joshua Neustein's most recent body of work has constructed its arena of relative values upon the subjective social science fic_tions of the geo-political map. Of all his work to date, this is perhaps` the-most ideal surface he has found to express the volatile under-currents of subjectivity that lurk beneath the placid flow of abjective reality. Neustein's map as the new landscape is a tableau artistically deliberate in its scale and graphics. His field of vision is markedly international, more inclusive in scope than his previous site specific earth works or aesthetically formal works on paper. In fact, his painting assemblages of the past year encompass the entire nexus of issues central to his earlier work. The map and attached object compose a new genre of landscape painting, registering emotional, political and semiotic turbulence with a global eye. It is-a medium of generalized communication, a text so totally open to interpretation that its points of reference provide complications rather than explanations. The functional ambivalence is no clearer when pondered from a distance or scrutinized under close inspection. Is the map, for example, to be understood as a picture of national powers, cultural characters, geographic situation or abstract surface texture? What kind of information we see contained in these media-savy graphics determines in turn what type of landscape is in question. It is with such unsteady footing that the viewer wanders, never sure if the trek is across ideological, political, social or artistic ground.,

The questions of content and intent are tightly intertwined in Neustein's art. The uncertainty as to what something means becomes symbolically central as a debate over what that something is. Is the map, we begin to wonder, information or imagination? It is on one hand, a found object, but on the other, it is a painting. The exact manner in which we-respond to this art's myriad of possible statements is not predetermined by the hidden agenda of its creator, but rather it is our personal predisposition which determines how we see the artist's intent. These art-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder parameters probe our definition of art's physical presence as much as they investigate the shapes of aphorism. Both efforts are involved


in an undermining of territorial absolutes. The former strategy was one of major consequence in Neustein's critically lauded epistemological paper pieces of the seventies. Neustein's manipulation of paper's two-dimensional form; tearing, folding, cutting, interweaving and layering it, produced an entirely new physical framework out of a surface whose stability has long been taken for granted. Neustein's work are deconstructions of art's implicit geometry. Works 'such as the folded-over paper paintings that nullified the line, separating front and back, inside and outside, and even relevant and irrelevant sides of an artwork, and his "Erased Square" that inverted art's dimensions over the axis dividing the void from the viscera, create black holes in the physics of art's expanding universe. These rips in the fabric; collapsed picture planes of undeniable density and gravitational attraction, still unravel form and content in Neustein's continuing aesthetic eddy.

In his most recent work the problem remains- where does the art begin and end? Between the painted map and the attached found objects, there is so much impersonation. that one must puzzle over the amorphous anatomy of their union, unsure as to which is the artistic gesture; what is accidental and what is intentional, or even what is pictorial and what is real. There is so much fragmentation and simulation in this sign system that the creative distinction between appropriation, mediation, and invention is hopelessly blurred. These pieces fall off the scale of cultural and personal expression registered in their passing the extremes of meaning and meaninglessness at once.

Neustein explains his dramatic shift away from epistemological abstraction as a response to the need he felt for his art to become more involved with the complex social, political and psychological environment of our times. As we have already noted, his new work does not abandon the issues raised by his conceptual paper paintings, but continues to draw on them, as one of many ricocheting lines of internal stress. These maps are not Neustein's first venture into a culturally temperamental climate. In fact, Neustein's numerous invasions into politically and emotionally sensitive terrain, as well as his own uprooted history upon the land,


provide an essential legend to his disoriented world. The global eye, -the shifting landscape, the shadows of doubt over the disputed ~borders of mutually exclusive imperatives, describe more than the tensions building within our global village. They chronicle the troubled soul of our epic voyager. A refugee, an expatriate, a nomad, a Jew, Neustein was born into the forbidden zone of mankind's blackest hour. From the 1940s to the present, he has been a wanderer soul lost in the malevolent and benevolent currents of national, religious and racial confrontation, Neustein has witnessed a fragile world in vistas from atop waves of quicksand; the Danzig Corridor, Siberia, Warsaw, Israel and New York. In the late sixties and early seventies Neustein explored displacement and multiple perspectives, using photography as a conceptual medium to articulate the psychology of perception. Documenting bales of hay as forms newly transplanted or no longer there, Neustein began his unspoken conversation on absence and alienation. In another piece of that time he superimposed different photographic views looking towards and out of a window. Another photographic work recorded in succession a wall's surface, inner structure, absence (seeing through it), and its other side. Through these early works Neustein devised a structuralist equation of displacement and changing pictures of the same reality.

Whatever discussion his work draws us into, be it intellectual or gut, Neustein's tone never instructs, yet it teaches us none the less. Surely the art does not lack opinion, but it has no set perspective, no definite meaning, no one language. The world, like the artist who sees it, is shaped by a multitude of influences. Even the extensive spectrum of meanings that spring from any of Neustein's maps are not without the added resonant implications of an attached object. Both the map and the object infect one another with inferred meaning. Does the rust on this metal shelf signify something (political, cultural, economic,...) about the land on the map? Are there similar sorts of innuendo to be culled from how any of these shelves lie upon their maps (what is or isn't covered), or by what, if anything, they have scratched on their surface? Does this object symbolize a traditional landscape, or that one represent flight


patterns? The answer is; perhaps, to the same degree that on the map Italy means pasta, Israel means Jews, Korea means war, Colorado means mountains, Cuba means Communism, and California means sunshine. That is, Neustein does not so much deny meaning, as he denies one meaning. He stacks up his layers of visual information to scramble all their claims of authority but never to entirely obscure or erase any of their possibilities. This is certainly evident in Neustein's suggestion that the porous sprayed surface of his maps imitate another layer. Similarly, glass panes over the surface of one map suggest the design of a Mondrian as a visible contradiction that is also transparent. The quotation is actually quite appropriate, for like Mondrian, Neustein's is an art of relationships. Just as Mondrian's use of primary color kept his forms pure and seperate from each other, Neustein's tokens accumulate in multiple combinations that defy simplification. As much as the surfaces of meaning in Neustein's art reflect one another, they are no more capable of being added together than apples and oranges.

Neustein's landscape of unsettled discrepancies is built along the diaphanous outer limits of cultural bias. His focus on the borders of conflict are not to exploit them for creative fuel (as so much "political art" is prone to do); but to exorcize the inherent frictions. His past performance and environmental art gestures along hostile borders acted cathartically as ritualistic releases of pent up frustrations. Neustein's persistent facade of inscrutability and deliberate rejection of political rhetoric, envelopes his art with a shamanist intensity. There is .a. hallucination of suggestion that lies on the horizon of Neustein's social landscape. This organic imagination has a way of bringing out hidden truths, making evident across time and space the invisible impressions culture leaves upon the earth. It is on this rich soil that Neustein has brought together abstraction and representation. For all the avenues of association and interpretation we are invited to follow, there remains a haunting absence of detail throughout this metaphorical land. It is a poetics of passage, but one that has forgotten all specificity and speaks only to our collective experience.

Carlo McCormick culture critic curator living.
Writing for Aperture, Art in America, Art News, Artforum, Camera Austria, High Times, Spin, Tokion, Vice curating shows for the Bronx Museum of Art, New York University, the Queens Museum of Art and the Woodstock Center for Photography. Carlo McCormick is Senior Editor of Paper Magazine.