joshua neustein texts
Drawings Of Change
by Manon Slome

Technique and subject merge in the drawings of New York-based Israeli artist
Joshua Neustein. In his many series he subverts the conventions of drawing on paper as he seeks to explore the psychological intellectual and organic implications of the medium.

In 1996, I flew down to the South Eastern Center for Contemporary Art in North Carolina to see an installation by Joshua Neustein entitled Light on the Ashes, a site-specific work conceived at the interstice of his personal history and the history of the 18th century town of Salem in North Carolina. In the cavernous spaces of the Potter Gallery, some 4,000 square feet of floor with 20foot ceilings, Neustein had installed a massive crystal chandelier, which was suspended from the ceiling to within a few feet of the ground. The floor of the Gallery was covered with a thick layer of ash on which a map of 18th century Salem had been carved. The streets of the town formed narrow walkways through which the viewer/visitor could enter the piece. Letters of the alphabet, cast in clay, were scattered close to the outskirts of the town in the vicinity of the chandelier.

My reasons for invoking this work are twofold. Binding this 4,000square-foot installation to the intimate scale of the drawings in the current exhibition, connecting the powdery ash to the manipulation of paper, serves as an introduction to some of the recurrent themes of Neustein's work. Running through his installation, map paintings, and drawings, one is conscious of an interplay between displacement and belonging, a refugee aesthetic based on both biography and sensibility which invites vulnerability, even transience into the process of image-making. Light on the Ashes also shares with his works on paper a keen sense of the infiltration of history and memory (amnesia) into the very fibers of the present-in that installation a specific history of the origins of Salem as a sanctuary for religious outcasts from Europe. But I also invoke Light on the Ashes because the experience of that vast installation is a fitting introduction to our apprehension of these intimate works on hand. I want to summon for the reader the sense of first walking into that installation. The magnificent scale of the work, the soft velvety blackness of the ash, lit only by the glow from the crystal chandelier. The light did not cancel out the darkness, the darkness did not lessen the brilliance of the chandelier. Both had their own territories yet gave substance to the other in the paradigmatic play of opposites-the beautiful upon the catastrophic, the cultural upon the industrial, an apostrophe between the spectacle and the hidden. The effect was like entering a cathedral-gothic, awe-inspiring, dust-filled rays of light, a silence in which one could hear eternal rhythms. Yet this space was composed of ash and absence, fragile fields of ash whose borders would crumble at the touch, the accident of entry, the visitor's foot straying from the paths.

In using words such as "cathedral" and "eternal," I do not wish to suggest any element of mysticism or even shamanism; for a dismantling of the notion of a "sublime" in art has been a constant tactic of his work. Rather, his enterprise is to tear through the veil, to make visible what is already there, waiting to he seen. While the invocation of the `cathedral was my referent for the emotional power of the work, it also functions on another level as an icon of authority. The elements of map, chandelier, and letters comprise a highly dense and politicized language of possession, boundaries, power, and social control, an archive or repository of accepted values. The ash, to continue the paradigm, functions as the anarchic or antiarchival principle, destabilizing the impulse for order and control.

The works on paper, I would suggest, function in that realm of the antiarchival. The fragility, vulnerability, and lin guistic scrambling involved in the works continues the destabilizing, or anti-canonical impetus of Neustein's work. But it must be noted that in his almost obsessive return to the same materials-carbon paper, soot, ash, crystal-there is a constant reexamining of their artistic possibilities, suggesting that the urgency with which Neustein, born 1940 in Poland, investigates the forces that work on us in society at large is inseparable from the rigorous practice of his own art-making. Questions as to how our world is shaped become inseparable from questions of the artistic process: What is possible for art?

In the current exhibition the drawings investigate or challenge the stability of the structures on which art-making has taken place. Working with carbon paper, with folded, torn, or rubbed paper, he calls into question the very surface on which images are generated. These works function to disrupt the conventions of drawing, engage the grammar of Modernism and scramble in a tautological fashion the structures of figure/ground, image/support, trace and representation. In spite of an art history vernacular that declares for the primacy of drawing, few artists in this century have made breakthrough work in this practice. To break away from the tyranny of reproducing icons meaningfully and be truly experimental, drawing must break away from drawing and become a drawing of change. It must cancel certitude, coherence, and structure. Drawing must have a passion for the origin, for the freedom to risk, to venture into new territories which is drawings' essential mode of being.

In the Carbon series, begun in 1970, Neustein starts with a standard stationary readymade. Several carbon sheets are attached to white copy paper and then folded to make a six by eight inch packet of four to six layers. The mark, the very essence of traditional drawing which adds something to a blank surface, is here generated by expressive strokes, cutting, tearing, folding, which neither add nor detract from the starting point. The gestures mainly mine the depths of the given, revealing the white, black, or gray layers which in turn float to the surface, sometimes with geometrical precision, sometimes in shadowy scratchings, and sometimes with a ghostly presence. The eye apprehends the works as an opening and closing-unfolding through seductive textures and fragile, gossamer layers. But whether formed by tearing, fraying, or scratching, the lines and forms always respond to something rigorously integral to Neustein's sense of the composition of the piece.

In Anagrammatic Windows, a work from the Carbon series, three lines of an irregular quadrangle are scratched through the top black layer. Above this structure and slightly off center, a vertical rectangle is cut and the black layer folded back, window-like, to reveal the gray surface which, in turn, has the same three lines etched onto its surface, keep the same proportions on the new surface as on the top (original) surface. The placement and diminished size, together with the shading from black to gray to white, play with the visual grammar of perspective, mirroring, even with mise en abysme, the actual cutting, the moving through from one layer to another. The viewer is moving through the surface, to a new surface which in turn both opens and reveals. Of course there is the further play that all this is being acted out on carbon paper whose very essence is an endless series of reproductions.

In conventional use, carbon paper functions as an archival tool. The storing repository aspects of the material-as opposed to the disseminating aspects of declamatory paintings-ties in to Neustein's preoccupation with the archive or the archivist impulses of bureaucracy. The storing or restoring aspects of the carbon copy paper is taken one step further but reversed into an act of negation in the Magnetic Drawings. The drawings are made in two phases. On one side of the paper, magnetic strips are attached in configurations which bear a direct relationship with the geometry of the paper sheet. This surface, which eventually becomes the "back" of the work is, in effect, the surface where the image-making takes place. On the other side of the paper, iron filings are scattered, which attach along the lines of magnetic attraction and enact the image.

The filings draft an image for a limited duration and then pass on, leaving the paper virgin, unmarked. The drawings have a mortality: in a sense they live and die. As the magnetic force erodes towards entropy, the drawings end. The filings that make the image vary or drop off in an episodic fashion, responding to jostling, mounting, or relocation of the picture. The play on words that name and declare these pieces, "magnetic drawings," is an aspect that extends the tension of the work.

They are magnetic drawings, drawings of attraction in that they exist only as long as the two sides are attracted to each other. Dependent on magnetic attraction, they become uncertain drawings as they question their own existence and the space of their location. They are, finally, endangered drawings, fragile and transient, their life subjected to dispersion and change.

A similar fall off, or shedding, occurs in the final series of works which, although not included in the present exhibition, deserve mention here: Polish Forests, a series begun in 1993 following the artist's first visit to Poland since his infancy. Here the surface of the page generates its own image, its conception brought about through the slow labor of scrubbing at the surface of the paper with wire brushes. From the pulpy, scarred surface, bare trunk-like forms of haunting beauty emerge. These ghostly images, white on white emblems of loss and longing, are fleeting forms whose birth is the beginning of their disintegration. When the paper is hung, the delicate excess pulp fibers fall snow-like to the bottom of the frame, testaments of transience and the silence of the finished act resumes.

This scraping process deconstructs the neutrality of the drawing surface, while the violence to the surface which sets in motion the falling off of the pulp reenacts the separation of the pulp involved in paper-making. In the final ellipsis of meaning, the implied image of the Polish forests reinserts the trees back into the paper from which it had its origin. The storing capacities of carbon paper and the magnetic strips become the re-storing quality of the Polish forests.

The paradigmatic play I described in Light on the Ashes, beauty countered with destruction, the archival subverted by the anarchic, the spectacle vying with the hidden, carry through into these exquisitely rendered drawings. The oppositions inherent in the work prompt tension - questioning: Where does the work begin and end? What is mark? What is surface? Does art record or erase reality? Is it the Archivist or the Anarchist? As ash resonates with the knowledge of its previous state, so in this art whose end is built into its essence, such oppositions finally do not stand in opposition but confirm a totality, a harmony.  

Manon Slome, Curator
Chelsea Museum
This article appeared in NY ASIAN ART NEWS
71 September/October 1998