joshua neustein texts

by Wendy Shafir

"...And from their inaccessible store, representation can draw out, piece by piece, only tenuous elements whose unity, whose point of connection, always remains hidden in that beyond. "
Michel Foucault, The Order of Things

Ashes and crystal chandeliers, letters of cast clay, oriental carpets, animal carcasses, hay bales, rolls of tar paper, stacks of glass, scaffolds and construction cranes: all act as sculptural components that communicate and disclose an array of social insinuations, imparting political statements on the seam of conviction. Joshua Neustein’s installations juxtapose lush, raw materials vested with site-specific meanings and set them against his vision of a dialectic of history. Neustein’s work acts as a catalyst, a journey to a web of rediscoveries where the center is everywhere and the circumference is nowhere. His lexicon functions as a hypertext, the materials and methods he employs, whether in the works on paper or in his installations, serve as mediators in an unabridged bibliography, a bombardment of references.

            When Neustein works on paper, he addresses the papers as a substance rather than a surface to draw on. He replaces the conventional tools of paintbrush and pencil with sharp implements, and his actions create marks which present an index of the artist’s physicality in the work. Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe characterized Neustein’s early works on paper with six adjectives: static, fragile, massive, grey, torn and impermanent. “Static in the sense that is often manifestly arrested, interrupted while in passage to some other disposition or position…The fragility of Neustein’s work, it seems to me, has to do with this folding. Folding paper, which is something one often does to give it strength as an act which affirms the materials’ delicacy in the same moment that it compensates for it, like tying twigs together…Massive in that it defeats pictorial space by its physicality. Tearing is a primary instrument of Neustein’s occupation with the specific. One finds oneself appreciating how the opposition of torn is not torn (i.e. folded) edges is also the opposition between inside and outside…Finally it is important that we experience Neustein’s work as installed, which is to say impermanent.”[1]
            In the Polish Forests large white sheets of paper are scraped and scoured with steel brushes until the top layer opens up and reveals the insides of the paper. The artist’s repeated rhythmic action produces tenuous fibrous beads of pulp and thereby reverses the process of paper making, creating an inversion between the act and the result. Installed in the gallery, the Polish Forests drawings present a cropped frame of the real landscape and within that frame lies an expanse of relinquished territories. “For the viewer, the object under glass becomes a metaphysical entity existing in a virtual time zone, a state of perpetual grace in which it remains untouched by history’s dirty hands. It has come to define how we regard the world: as if it exists only behind a screen.”[2]
In Neustein’s work, scenes and events are recorded on the screens of our consciousness. A data bank of images and fragments of images – a file index of procedures – a resource library accumulated to be used at a later date. The artist leads us through paths/links which move away from the origin of the materials, and emerge reconfigured in a re-formatted loop. Dormant data and dormant sensibilities are evoked, summoned from our memories as an impetus to create new attachments and associations. Introspection and the art experience mark a locale presenting a tabula rasa (blank pad) for the viewer to load new meanings. The landscape of a birch forest seen from a train window resonates with the visual memory of the pulped paper in the Polish Forests drawings. An exchange value is created whereby the real Polish forest and the works titled as such resonate as one, undeterred by the fact that one is an abstract reference to a figurative entity.- 
            In a body of work that preceded the Magnetic Field Drawings, Neustein etched maps on steel plates that rusted around the image. The rust was a metaphor for the erosion of political borders. The etching and scraping on the steel produced a residue of steel filings. Similar fall-away, steel filings used in the Magnetic Field Drawings became an index for sublimated material cycles and their erosion. Neustein “draws” with magnetic strips that he adheres to one side of the paper. He then turns the sheet over and scatters metal filings, which attach themselves to the space on the paper where the magnetic charge is active. The drawing operates on both sides of the paper: on one side is a permanent placement, while the other side enacts a fluctuating imagery. The filings fall off when the magnetic charge diminishes, exemplifying an “endangered drawing” with a life span limited by its intrinsic nature.
            Steel, in its milled form, summons industrial references such as construction, military action, vehicles, and mass print production. The fragility of the steel filings in the Magnetic Field Drawings creates a strong tension and contrast to the material in its raw, functional form. Neustein uses the powder-like crude material to attenuate the conventions of surface identity. The permanency of art in the conventional sense is confounded by transience. Both Magnetic Field Drawings and Polish Forests shed. As they peel off layers from the surface, layers of interpretation, entropy keeps the work in motion.
In the Carbon Copy Series, Neustein uses the obsolete archival carbon copy papers to record a chronicle of images. The drawings are made from stationery packets with three or more sheets of paper attached to each other: carbon copy, tissue paper and a white sheet of paper which was intended for the typewriter. Neustein joins these papers and then folds, cuts, tears, scrapes and scores them into forms familiar in Minimalist practice. The Carbon Copy Series summons visions of office activity: men and women typing, the passion of creative writing or the perfunctory act of recording, crumpling carbon paper after use, the clicking of the machines. The Carbon Copy Series is not nostalgia for bureaucratic rendering but a remnant of obsolete office paraphernalia. The materials are stripped of their conventional function and the placement of the carbon copy paper is no longer relevant. The marks and scratches on the carbon surface, whether visible or hidden from the viewer designate the carbon’s utilitarian function or dysfunction, and in this potential dysfunction resides the poetry of the drawings. In 1990 Neustein described “the image as ‘unhinged’ from the material surface and circulates in un-framed space, between parts of one pictorial plane or transferred between several pictorial planes. In computer language, the data floats as un-stored information, in a dematerialized state.”
          From the early 1970s Neustein showed an intense interest in the role of archives. Archives store, select, salvage data from waste, loss, or obliteration. In 1995 for the Venice Biennale, Neustein created The Possessed Library posing a critique on the concept of archives and institutions. The inventory from this installation was salvaged, stored and used two years later as material for the rendering of The Blind Library.

A coherent ideology propels both the installations and the works on paper: to isolate one group from the other denies a central meaning in both bodies of work. One invents the mind, the other grants extensions of reality. The viewer can equate the reading of Neustein’s oeuvre to the principle of reading in hypertext. In hypertext we use a network of links between words, ideas, formats, and sources based on the premise that individual documents or ideas can be connected by keywords. These keywords serve as connectors between parts of the hypertext, yet no keyword is presumed to have any greater significance or truth than other parts of the text in which they are embedded. This disruption of hierarchy results in intricate, multi-faceted definitions and correspondences of ideas without a center. Hypertext presumes open borders – this non-structured system acts as an unabridged bibliography of references, an encyclopedia generated by random point-to-point exploration. In hypertext the information is consistently a part en route to other links – it exists as a permanently deferred wholeness (totality). Similarly the drawings can be seen as passages for exploration, as access to a series of progressions each of which multiplies the possibilities and opens up a multitude of meanings. The diverse explorations in hypertext as well as in art are only limited by the degree the reader or viewer is willing to wander from keyword to keyword, from markings (of a pencil line) to markings (made by metal filings). Such exploration is reminiscent of the late 19th century flaneur who wandered from landmark to landmark without maps, predetermined routes, or directions.
            Neustein stimulates another discourse when he leaves his work as an “open-ended loose weave”. The artist prompts the viewer to defer his immediate need to “get the work”. If the viewer reads the work as a hypertext he is a flaneur but also a participant who articulates traces of his presence, a part of a chain reaction, a form of intervention in critical interpretation. A negotiation is generated between the viewer, artist, and the concepts embedded in the art. In the negotiation a metamorphosis takes place: the art enlists a categorical openness to a broader scope, a directory tree, transmitter of events, a possibility to exist in all the programs and at all options. In the stringent glossary of Neustein’s oeuvre lies a denouement – an expansion of procedures and syntax. As in hypertext the viewer dwells in a state of flux vis-à-vis the work and in the deferment art lingers beyond the span of its actual lifetime.

[1] Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, “Joshua Neustein: Fragile Massive Grey Torn Impermanent.” Artforum Summer 1978, pp. 54-56
[2] Ralph Rugoff, Museum of Horrors, Any, No. 18 1998

Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Polish Forests Magnetic Fields Carbon Copies, September 1998, p. 9-13. Wendy Shafir and Susan Stoops, co-curators of the exhibition.