joshua neustein texts
Maps/Painting the Dynamics of Reading
by Yigal Zalmona

joshua neustein's series of "map" drawings was created during the past year in new york. the emotional trigger which has set the machinery of their creation into motion was released by the returning of the sinai peninsula back to egypt ("in spite the fact that my political views justify it" says the artist "i went then through a deep trauma, such as the one that follows the amputation of an essential limb". psychologists would consider such a statement to be the expression of a castration trauma, but such a reaction would suit perhaps an artist whose work has been based for years on the principle of breaking up the whole into parts and reuniting it...). neustein sees it as an unconsciously engaged description, a visual expression of day-dreams, of a trauma caused by living in an oppressed world... as well as an artistic solution for a political trauma.

semiologically, the map is pluralistic in meaning. It relates to reality by means of analogy and representation. It is a picture of the geographical world, but, from the point of view of its decipherment, it is schematic and sometimes abstract. the map is a rational sign, impersonal, mechanistic and has a character of a poster at the same time, it is an image politically and emotionally charged, a documentation of geography, history and politics - a "picture of the world". artists, particularly conceptual artists, have used maps as an image or as a scientific nominator in their works both ironically (by the israeli artist michael drucks) and as a "visual investigation" (by the dutch artist jan dibbets).

but neustein's "maps" are paintings, and the code which activates them is poetic rather than scientific. neustein's maps have a certain artistic "style". most could be considered as a kind of abstract painting. the paints he applies to the maps with varying thickness are not characteristic of maps: mother-of-pearl, black, grays and browns.

the facture is sensual, expressive, gestural and free. storms of colorful material seem sometimes to attack these maps - an expression of a desire in action.

western culture has tended to separate clearly between scientific and expressive signs. neustein, not respecting this

convention, creates a strange complexity of these two kinds of signs. he plays on the border between the contradictory readings of different codes. his maps loose something of the abstract dimension inherent to the scientific code. they do not bear names of sites, and with the exception of longitude, latitude and boundary lines, they lack arbitrary signs. these lines become lines of an artistic drawing. sometimes they are glimpsed beneath the layers of colour like the preparatory lines for compositions of traditional paintings. neustein's maps are as close to reality as possible (they sometimes look like satellite photographs with added lines of latitude).

the large dimensions of the maps and their "public scale" facilitate the emotional and "existential" contact between them and the spectator, as if it was a section of a space fitting the scale of human movement. this contact is supported by the organic and sensual character of the brushwork.

neustein turns a conventional system into art and, at the same time, he secularizes the painting by turning it into a "map".

the wild and emotional maps of joshua neustein express his ambivalence towards israeliness. on the one hand he paints the country, the sinai desert and the middle east, compulsively, as if to say "i am in the west but my heart is in the east", but on the other hand, he does not paint the landscapes of the place but rather its map, his outlook is objective, remote, the view of a satellite... the maps do not reflect an emotional and rooted contact to place. neustein is a "refugee" par-excellence. born in 1940 in danzig, poland, he wandered as a refugee to russia, germany, austria and to the u.s.a. after living in a religious jewish atmosphere in new york he began to study art and immigrated to israel. here, in the 1970's he became one of the country's leading young artists and then returned to the u.s.a. while retaining a deep emotional affinity with israel. this affinity is sometimes apparent in his work in which the question of identity is a natural preoccupation. it was expressed both in the principle of removal and transfer that characterized his work in the past and, in the concentration on the question of defining the identity of an art object.

geography and the delimiting of territories were essential to the "refugee" artist (many of his works related to the question of borders. in one, a dog carved out his individual territory by urinating along its boundaries).

what is the connection between these maps and neustein's previous works? in the past (at the beginning of the 1970's) his works were defined as the investigation of the nature of visual language and the possibilities of representing reality. His works revealed the process of their making and were based on manipulating visual and physical categories (folding, tearing, etc.) according to certain preconceived rules. the dynamics of reading was the principle interest of his works. in the late 1970's his work became less epistemological and less abstract. the paper's folds and its tearings concealed (perversely) figurative images. the colour was applied in "emotional" and free strokes, with sensitive and painterly brushwork. the works became organic, their viscera glimpsed, like in an operation, from beneath the layers of torn outer "skin". the drawings of the maps relate to this later group in their intensive expressiveness. But they also relate to his earlier works by being receptive to the complex question of representing reality (map/painting), the existing of a given system which does not belong to the realm of art, and which precedes the process of painting and determines the image and the shaping of the forms.

"i have no need to fold and conceal", the artist claims in relation to the maps/drawings. and indeed, the perversity of the personal affiliation with an object, the complexity of representing reality, the relation between a three–dimensional and two-dimensional representation of reality (which is actually the use of a map, which is a "flat" description of three-dimensional reality), all these exist in the map series, and do not require a more complex treatment of the support.

yigal zalmona curator

Israel Museum

september 1983