Shalom Neuman is an art world phenomenon. By this I mean he does not conform to predictable art world strategies of “making-it.” At first-glance, his work may appear excessive, redundant, over the top, metaphysical, even bipolar. But there is more to it. To use the proverbial expression, there is more here than meets the eye.
In many ways, Shalom’s work reflects the chaos of his early life. Born in Czechoslovakia in 1947 to parents who were Holocaust survivors, Shalom’s early life was spent in Israel. In 1948, his father -- whose military experience served to his advantage -- decided to move the family outside Eastern Europe to escape the political chaos and uncertainties of post-World War II Communism. Shalom was one-year old at the time. He remained in Israel until 1959, when the family immigrated to the United States through the help of a distant uncle, the composer/pianist Otto Frohlich. As a young artist in the late sixties, Shalom began traveling to Europe – specifically to France, and later, to former Czechoslovakia. While many Americans tend to separate art from life, as if they were unrelated, Shalom sees the paradigm differently. In an oblique way, he was close to the early Rauschenberg who once claimed the importance of working “in the gap between art and life.” For Shalom, art is inextricably connected to everything he sees, and life holds a constant abiding intervening influence on art. Even so, the connection is not always obvious when viewed from the outside. For many who have seen Shalom’s work displayed at the Fusion Arts Gallery in the Lower East Side on Stanton Street, the question may arise as to where the influences actually reside. It is no longer the sixties, nor is it the eighties. The brightly-colored plastic and figurines that the artist employs in his work – the synthetic hues embedded in plastic, the florescent lights and neon tubes, the craggy, twisted, expressionist faces, and ghoulish heavy metal, “night of the living dead” figures, may indeed suggest another era. But this is only part of the story, the most obvious part, which deters some observers from taking his art to a further level of analysis or understanding.
What is not understood in Shalom’s work is how connected it is to the way he thinks – to his philosophical (in contrast to theoretical) way of seeing things in the everyday world – as a kind of symbolic exegesis, a Romantic enticement that goes beyond the banalities of the American robber barons into the realm of mysticism, the numerology of the Kaballah, and the survival of planet Earth. There is a dark side to Shalom’s art that runs contrary to the hypocritical leanings of Puritanism, a dark side that is more comfortable in the Parisian underworld – the Symbolist poets, Baudelaire, Verlaine and Rimbaud, the painters, Redon, and Moreau – than it is to the founders of Plymouth colony with their theocratic notions of good and evil and their obsessive social paranoia. To understand Shalom’s “obsessive” art is reminiscent of a statement by the Surrealist Max Ernst, who was once asked in a television interview in the fifties with Roland Penrose, if the madness of artists was the same as whose who invented weapons of nuclear destruction. Ernst replied with an affirmative “No! It is a madness of a completely different sort.” What Ernst meant is that artists tend to sublimate internal conflict as a source of human expression, even if, at times, it appears errant or distasteful to viewers. On the other hand, scientists who work on ballistic and nuclear “devices” tend to live in denial – consciously removed from the cause and effect relationship of what they are doing.
Whatever elements Shalom inserts into his assemblage/collage technique, they are there for a purpose. He is a kind of old world symbolist – or better put, a hybrid between the old world and the new world -- in that his images are not merely decorative, they are compulsively literate. They are symbolic. Although they might appear decorative, they are not. There is nothing decorative about them – at least, not in the formal sense. They do not disappear into the furnishings, the wallpaper or the skylights. Linguistically-speaking, his images function semiotically as signs – like the work of any mature artist, whether it be Caravaggio or Picasso, Balthus or Lichtenstein. He structures his work according to his own obdurate vocabulary, hoping to illuminate the dark side of reality. It is a visual vocabulary, largely founded on global signs from Eastern Europe and the subcultures of New York, on which he continuously builds. Shalom is not an artist who stops mid-way in the process of making his work. He goes all way, that is, all the way through it – from the beginning, to the middle, to the summation of everything in-between. Yet at the same time, there is little about Shalom’s work that is inevitable or predictable. He is not that type of artist. His brilliant, phosphorescent colors and hybrid discontinuous forms, his recalcitrant, blustering heads, busts, eyes, nostrils, are about the surrogate portrait. These people do not really exist. They are archetypes based on many who exist in the underbelly of New York society. Shalom’s portraits have the capability of opening new doors of consciousness, of expelling the trashed ideas of a previous era, specifically, the era of the eighties. Shalom is in search of something new. He has not forsaken the eighties, but he is not a postmodern junkie. He is deeply entrenched in creating another angle of vision, another possibility, a potential for reliving the excess of two decades ago, but from another contemporary harlequin vision, a stupendous voyeuristic encapsulation of all that lives in the trenches of desire who are reaching for the abundance of pure light. So the question for the viewer might be –what exactly is Shalom seeking?
I see Shalom Neuman as a kind of artistic renegade, as someone who wants to remain outside the fray, and beyond the superficial machinations of the market. There is no doubt that he would like collectors to buy his work, but he is repulsed by the notion that investors would speculate on the profit they would make from it. Shalom has put himself in another position – in a place that is excessive and incendiary. Like the famous song by the The Doors, he wants to light fires – to open doors to another form of consciousness, both cultural and political, whereby the viewer recognizes the damage being done to the environment. Shalom understands that this is both an internal and external process and accepts his art as a visionary statement. He is interested in making images of fragmented, mythic, and distorted images of ghouls and outrageous specters. The dark side of the human condition needs to be recognized before human beings take a new turn in another (opposite) direction.
Yet, throughout his career, Shalom has progressed as an artist from the platform of classical painting. Any commentary or polemic is embedded with his classical painterly notation -- his modulations and sentiments, his nuances and hidden spectacles. The breadth of his early painting, Classical Myth (1969 - 72) -- begun at L’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Fontainebleau, and later completed in graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University -- offers his statement on race in America, not from a negative or cynical point of view, but from through Eros and life-affirming sexuality. It was painted when the artist was in his early twenties. Classical Myth is, in fact, a triptych in the Renaissance sense -- a central panel with flanking panels. Images of the two characters – a black male nude and a bare-breasted white female – repeat themselves from the exterior flanking panels into the interior narrative. At the same time, the perspective is carefully rendered, almost invisibly, so that we are moving from the space of two isolated individuals on the flanking panels to a meeting point -- in fact, a rendezvous -- within the central picture plane. Here Shalom has painted a black Madonna holding a white child. The interior room appears like the interior of a Venetian palazzo. There is a sense of displacement, which is exactly how the artist intended it. The feeling of viewing the two subjects may also feel displaced as if they were really somewhere outside the picture. This is reinforced by two wooden table legs that descend from the interior of the picture place below the frame, thus entering into real space where the viewer observes with quiet intrigue as to what is happening within this interracial encounter.
I mention the painting Classical Myth not only because it is the earliest painting included in this volume, but also because it is the launching pad – the perspectival index – the take-off point where Shalom is going to proceed into the future. Of course, every artist has his or her own idea of the future, and it is almost never what the artist predicts at the time. In the case of Shalom, Classical Myth revealed his extraordinary ability to distance himself from the subject matter that he paints. I mention this because some would argue that his recent expressionist assemblage “portraits” in “Amerika” lack this distance, that they are too internalized, as if verging on some weird solipsistic disintegration. But not every artist’s distance – formally speaking – reveals itself in the same way. Shalom has never been an artist to conform to a trend, even in the eighties. He has always moved according to his own track. When Marcel Duchamp said in an interview with the curator James Johnson Sweeney that the future of art would go “underground,” most followers immediately assumed that the underground was some form of neo-avant-gardism. Underground film, music, and theater began to explode by the end of the fifties in New York – largely influenced by the mentor’s remark. However, given the situation in the early twenty-first century with the aggression of the art market, Duchamp may have interpreted the underground in a very different way, by suggesting that the real art is not what you invest in, but what lurks beneath the surface of the latest trends, in other words, beneath what everyone wants.
I admire the fact that Shalom does not care about what everybody wants. Instead, he is focused on his own image-making process, on his own intimate intentions, and on what he wants and how he wants to express them. Shalom’s aesthetic/anti-aesthetic dialectic goes beyond the commonplace. By the mid-eighties, he was painting consistently outside his earlier classical style, and had moved into a different form of expression, what eventually became his “Toxic Paradise” series. He was still involved with social commentary in an existential way, but less from the position of classical painting and more toward a fusion of Pop and Surrealism, often in relation to shaped CANVASES. Shalom’s irony is also evident – a persistent component in his work – as one painting in the “Toxic Paradise” series reveals two organically bent twin skyscrapers that eerily evoke the World Trade Center towers in New York. Flanking either side of these Towers are American cartoon superheroes, which include Superman, The Hulk, Captain Marvel, and Spiderman. In another equally ironic oval-shaped canvas, a bright orange sunset glows on a polluted seascape with a molded frame that repeats the image of encircling dead fish.
From the eighties onward, the term “fusion” applies to most everything Shalom has done. While he sees the origin of his fusion approach as being within the realm of a theatrical collage – or assemblage mixed with environmental art and artifacts – it also applies largely to the content of his work. These hybrids have been present in his subversive imagery since the outset of his career. Even in “Classical Myth” we see the legs of the table coming into the real space/real time environment, meeting the viewer halfway, as it were. This continues with “Toxic Paradise” and, perhaps, most explicitly, in another major work, around the same time, entitled “Neo-Nuky Madonna” (1983-84). This multimedia work is a wall piece, a relief, made of mostly plastic parts. While the symbolic aspects of “Neo-Nuky” may appear obvious, such as the dead bird affixed over the Madonna’s head to the brightly colored plastic detergent containers that appear as multiple breasts, or the commercial realist depiction of a bionic baby whose fingers point toward a radiating light on the ground beside her, the artist’s originality is less in the parts than in the syntax of the whole. This is where Shalom’s intuition – his imaginative power – brings everything into focus.
In addition, Shalom’s art clearly manifests a passionate concern about the environment – the nature that is being obliterated and destroyed by contemporary society. He is deeply concerned with how human beings will be able to survive if the current policies against the environment remain in force. He has stressed this point both in his work and in statements about his work on several occasions going back to his early “Art Alchemy” pieces in the seventies while working in Paris in a collective of artists called P.A.N. (Performance Artists Network). The use of “alchemy” – a medieval system of melting and smoldering various alloys by which to caste a magic smell – is more indexical and less actual in Shalom’s work. But the performative ingredient in his work is an on-going interest. It is through performance than the recent series of faces, called “Amerika,” came into existence. We cannot ignore the work of the Romanian Dadaist Marcel Janco at the Cabaret Voltaire in the midst of the raging “Great War” in Europe in 1916 - 17, whose African - inspired masks were worn to wart off the evil around them and evoke the spirit of nature as a process of healing and renewal.
I find a curious resonance in the masks of Shalom, even though they were not intended to be worn. They are less portraits than archetypes – composites of much of the weirdness that the artist encounters in human beings who hang-out around the vicinity of his studio in Brooklyn. I would not refer to the “Amerika” series as Surreal – in the way the “Toxic Paradise” paintings are Surreal– but more belonging to the instincts of corporeal existence, that is, more Expressionist. However, they are not Expressionist from the perspective of the New York School of the fifties as much as they are endowed to the Sturm und Drang of the German and Austrian painters of the early twentieth century. Shalom’s imagery is much more direct than Abstract Expressionism, less involved with formal abstraction and more involved with subtle modulations of gesture and color. Shalom made it clear that he wants to imitate the color of plastic containers on supermarket shelves. He wants to increase the volume of his colors. However, he does admit a certain kinship with the Woman paintings of DeKooning in the early fifties, and with the early Leo X paintings of Francis Bacon. Shalom Neuman is a humanist, transported from Eastern Europe, who is both an American and an international artist. Like Kafka, who was also Czech, Shalom’s vision of reality is paradoxical: He offers a deeply intimate reality with an outwardly existential point of view. His psychic power is manifested through the absorption of popular culture. Again, like Kafka, Shalom’s Jewishness cannot be underplayed in his work. One feels a certain alienation, a curious cultural distance, and an infinite longing in the respective Amerikas of each artist. It would appear that the title of these collective masquerades – America, spelled Germanically with a “k”– has been appropriated from the early unfinished novel of Kafka. Kafka, of course, never traveled to the United States so that everything he surmised in this novel was based on fragments taken from reading travel guides and conversations with travelers who had been there. The story is about Karl Rossmann who left Europe due to a mysterious, but unfortunate affair with a woman in order to begin anew in the “promised land.” Rossmann sees Amerika through his imagination, but from a highly acculturated Eastern European point of view. Kafka’s Amerika could be read as an allegory of Europe displaced onto this new frontier at the outset of the twentieth century. The strange and final chapter of Amerika called “The Nature Theater of Oklahoma” – with all its distortion of reality – elucidates the interior journey of its author, Kafka, as he struggles to understand his position in this unusual time and place.
Observing “Shalom Amerika” has many indirect references to Kafka’s alienation and feeling of interior self-consciousness. In short, it is a remarkable body of work. Clearly the social comment on the environment would never enter the self-narrative discourse of Kafka, but Shalom is a product of his own time. His searching (self)consciousness as a product of our time. In this sense, Kafka and Shalom share the experience of alienation at different moments in history. Perhaps, Shalom is the postmodern version of Kafka, who is unmistakably tied to the first decades of Modernity. If these faces are archetypes of the present, maybe they are less about the Pop exterior than about the interior appropriation of what the eye/brain mechanism has absorbed. Like the Dadaist, Marcel Janco, they are faces that carry a therapeutic aspect. As much as we may attempt to avoid them, they still confront us. Occasionally they may be difficult to see – to hold within the mind’s eye; but fierce memories from another time or from another place – as Kafka tried to reveal – may linger at the moment a face ceases to appear human. This is when the gaze of the viewer turns to stone and when the soul of the “other” relinquishes hope. Thus, the ambivalent content of Shalom Amerika also holds a reference to peace. Such a fable could become reality not through denial of the self or the other, but through seeing the other within the self. Yet there is a glittering, almost hedonistic aspect to these heads, surrounded by little plastic figures, symbolic sports figures, cheerleaders, heroes, and heroines – all plastic fantasies. For example, as I study the work, entitled Amerika #10, I see all its glittering seduction with a twisted, gnarled appearance. It has an endearing aspect as well, a face that tells us to deflate in the process of recognizing the “other” as our gaze reverts inward.
I suppose that Shalom would not object to the inclination that we all have fierce funny faces hidden somewhere within us, faces that are revealed secretly on the dark side of consciousness. This may be the real legacy behind “Amerika.” Like democracy in the twenty -first century, we can never assume that our fierce funny faces are not a part of the problem of existence in the world today or that they removed from the conflicts that are present within us. Shalom’s “Amerika” finally becomes an irredeemable part of who we are, even as our actions may prove contrary to what we believe ourselves to be.
Robert C. Morgan is an international art critic, artist, and curator, who holds an M.F.A. and Ph.D. Author of numerous catalogs and books on contemporary art, Professor Morgan lectures regularly at Pratt Institute and the School of Visual Arts in New York.
(Image of Robert C. Morgan © By Charlybrwn17 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)