Artwork & Critical Essays > Critical Essays and Books

I do not speak of the Fusionist work of the artist Shalom Tomas Neuman lightly. He is a complicated artist with many sides, many brilliant foibles and activist revisions. He is the kind of artist one hopes to meet if one does not know well how artists live and think and work. This is no less interesting for me, because in many ways Neuman is both the paradigm and the exception of an experimental artist. The presence of art appears in his face and mind, in his heart and soul. Neuman knows the ropes (as absurd as that may sound). He knows how to tangle and wrangle. He knows how to foam and spit. He is capable of extraordinary feats beyond the pale of what effete golfers would dare call art. But this is not his problem. Rather he is focused on art that goes beyond predictable boundaries. Neuman does not limit what art can be or what it can do or how it should look. If anything, he does the opposite. He is a bold-faced artist and, contrary to many, an open-minded, consciously aware artist, who remains alert to what is happening around him. While not always rational is his exclamations, his heart is in his art, and this is what carries the ball to the goal line.

Shalom Neuman is occasionally criticized for his hyperextended incursions into Pop Art often verging on kitsch. I would see this as follows: Whereas Pop art burgeoned in the early sixties as something new, gutsy, and glossy, Neuman radically altered the context of Pop into something else. He began collecting the throwaways distributed by way of popular culture decades ago, often manufactured in plastic, rubber, or inexpensive alloys. He immediately transformed these mass-produced objects into assemblage. He took incidental plastic forms with eye-catching, alternating colors, which he would then place side-by-side or on top or below one another. Half-broken, with parts missing, Neuman recycled these old used plastic toys in a way that brought back the shine. He found the glitter and the squeak and made them playful and funny. Shalom courageously collected these toys, whether broken or unbroken, spliced or unspliced, cooked or raw, and placed them, in a new context – a collaged objet trouve, Monsieur. Voila! Tres bien.

I am curious as to what his audience believes he is doing and how it complies with his point of view. Is it all about the party? Or is something deeper involved? Neuman’s Fusionism is both concentrated and ebullient. it rides on the thin shingles of time. But Neuman has an incredible knack for moving beyond his point of departure, a kind of intellectual sorcery, wound through a rambunctious sensibility. As an astute generalist, he is able to take Fusionism in whatever direction he wants it to go. The event at the Teatro della Pergola in Florence on September 23, 2013 is just one example of his keen understanding of the simultaneity of artistic production. In comparison, one might see Neuman’s work likened to that of another artist with a related point of view, Carolee Schneemann’s Meat Joy from the Festival de la Libre Expression in Paris on May 29, 1964. Both were openly wild commotions of ecstatic interplay among sumptuously nude or partially clothed participants.

Relative to Neuman’s Fusionismo in the historic Teatro della Pergola, the artist endorses the following: “I want to bridge the existing barriers between artistic disciplines such as painting, sculpture, light, sound, performance theatre, digital art and the written/spoken word. I want to make these individual disciplines indecipherable from one another, creating a multi-disciplinary and multi-sensory environment.” On another note, in response to her ground-breaking performance Meat Joy, Schneemann declares: “Its propulsion is toward the ecstatic – shifting and turning between tenderness, wildness, precision, abandon: qualities which could at any moment be sensual, comic, joyous, repellent.” Despite the comparison, there was an audience present at Schneemann’s performance whose role was separate from the half-nude participants who were engaged in throwing raw fish, chicken parts, and sausages over and between one another. From the description I understood by Neuman, the audience at the Teatro della Pergola was given the opportunity to wander amidst the participants as they were in the process of painting one another’s bodies during the performance.

Indeed, despite Neuman self-proclaimed uniqueness, the antecedents behind an artist’s work are most always present, whether or not they are known or acknowledged. For example, Neuman’s concept of Fusionism, which I understand as primarily involved with a kind of operatic view of art, is related to Richard Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk from a century earlier and not unrelated to Walter Gropius’ concept of Total Architecture nearly a half-century later. Add to these, the Happenings of Allan Kaprow, and we begin to see that the evolution of Fusionism has had an important trajectory throughout the history of Modernism. Stylistically, we might say that Neuman’s “post-Pop” or “Pop kitsch” point of view offers an important, if not necessary contribution, especially given the artist’s allegiance to detritus, which— for Neuman – is an important ingredient in his work.

In an artist’s statement written in 2012, Neuman advocated: “I use detritus and garbage because they are artifacts of our society, comprise our environment, speak to who we are as a culture and place in our time.” In other words, what filters through the Capitalist system as junk, but still (according to Neuman) retains a resonance that inevitably reveals the artist’s noteworthy approach to assemblage, while remaining obversely significant. For Neuman, the presence of detritus in his work is not negative. Rather it offers a notable contingency, a materialist dependency. It is what consumers potentially make available – unwittingly – to artists. Given this approach, Neuman happily incorporates the delectable waste he finds here and there into his works, which he believes, for better or worse, are intrinsic to the excessive capital that reverberates through our global culture.

Moreover, he believes that not only is Fusionism meant for all – whether trained in art or otherwise – but that it also represents a state of mind liberated from the categories of specialization that have mistakenly continued from the fifties to the present. Neuman clearly argues that now in the age of digital media, the opportunity to break through age-old barriers of specialization are upon us. Now we can begin to communicate happily and blithely through performance and installations of one kind of another, that is, to communicate ideas that will transmit from one specialization to another, without jargon and mindless rhetoric, focusing instead on a clear and viable understanding of the issues at hand among all parties. This argument would be difficult to negate despite the efforts of advertisers to suggest otherwise. For artists, however, we can no longer afford the shroud of advertising. It has become obsolete, a form of conceptual waste.

Here I would like to cite the Happenings of Allan Kaprow who are undoubtedly important – at least, from an historical vantage point – to the current exigencies found in Fusionism. It was Kaprow in the late 1950s to began to merge various forms together and to transform static art into an event that became openly dialogical. Kaprow’s influences were wide. They help considerable breadth, ranging from John Cage to the art historian Meyer Shapiro, from the theological Martin Buber to the practice of Zen, from the painting style of Jackson Pollock to the multivalent activities found on the streets of Times Square. Taking some of this a step forward, one might argue in the case of Neuman, that the blatantly hyper-materialist effects of the present incite the desire to find an egress from the extraneous turmoil and anxiety-ridden life-styles that stand hopelessly behind art as a form of mindless stasis or art that wallows precipitously through the obsolete vestibules of mediumistic dependency. In either case, Neuman is annoyed with practitioners who do not recognize the opportunities to eradicate this dependency and to fuse media into a temporal holistic engagement, which I understand as being the essential point of his Fusionism.

“If our world is composed of overlapping stimuli which create constant sensory overload,” write Neuman, “then why should visual art limit itself to any one discipline such as painting, sculpture, print, video or computerized digital images? Is it not true that imagery is inseparable from sound and evolution in time? And if this is the case, shouldn’t art be a mirror
which accurately reflects our environment, society and culture?” The fact that these issues are being raised in the form of questions in appropriate in that the artist is giving us less a world view and a description of globalism.

From an exterior viewpoint – that is, from the position of globalism – the notion of a single discipline or a single medium appears to lose ground. As concentration on one thing appears to have been mitigated over the years since the Internet has assumed an omniscient role in our intimate lives, it would appear that art should become pluralistic. This has a familiar resonance given that 25 years ago the author wrote a manifesto, titled “Declassified” (1992) in which he stated: “Whereas the modernist and Postmodernist artist has been more or less confined to the use of a style or trademark as a marketing device, it would now appear possible that the artist could become an agent of declassification. Since the late Seventies the art world has seen the evolution and development of the hybrid artist, i.e. the artist-critic, artist-editor, artist-dealer, etc. This phenomenon of artistic hybridization is not simply a matter of working bereft of a stylistic intention but it is also a matter of engaging oneself in a plurality of activities as those activities seem appropriate to one’s entry into a real discourse on art.”

While the author’s idea of “declassification” appeared to hold its own logic when it was written, it soon became clear – as the art market continued to become more aggressive – that the possibilities of working outside the established parameters of singularity were problematic unless one departed from the established art world altogether. Comparatively, when I reflect on the position Neuman’s Fusionism is taking, I am intrigued by it. I am intrigued largely because his sense of autonomy as an artist is something he holds as being essential to his work. In some ways I would question whether his notion that art is a mirror “which accurately reflects our environment, society and culture” is correct. From a global perspective, yes; but from an artistic perspective it would seem to limit the imagination in terms of how the artist chooses to work. Having spent considerable time looking at the various portraits that Neuman has constructed from discarded children’s toys, I kind of think the imaginative component in his work is important.

Having said this, I respect Neuman’s desire for artistic autonomy. His ongoing connection with the Czech Republic, especially after the turbulence and traumatic events of his youthful years, are impressive. His passion to work internationally on his own terms is an intrinsic and significant part of his work. If Neuman requires Fusionism as a guidepost or a method by which to work, this would be difficult to argue. Whatever works in his favor and whatever enables his work to continue is the larger issue. His embrace of new technology in relation to the tactile approach of constructing and paintings forms is interesting. I am supportive of the idea that he appears less involved in imposing a signature style than in allowing the work to emerge on his own terms. Whether Post-pop or Pop kitsch – these are references to a style or a way of thinking about the a recent culture we can scarcely deny. Granted they have references to a market for which I hold little interest; but for Shalom, that does not appear to be an issue. One of the major problems confronting artists today is how to avoid conforming to the myriad of superficial trends that, in fact, thwart creativity. In response to this, I recall a comment from the sociologist Neil Postman twenty years ago as we were returning from a conference outside of New York: “We all have a right to defend our culture.” In viewing and participating in the work of Shalom Neuman , this would seem to be the major point.


REFERENCES:

Shalom Tomas Neuman, Fusionism, Musee des Beaux Arts de Mont Saint-Hilaire, (Quebec), 2014

Shalom Neuman, “Artist’s Statement,” Shalom Tomas Neuman (November 18 – December 12, 2016) BWA Jelenia Gora (Poland)

Carolee Schneemann, More Than Meat Joy: Performance Works and Selected Writings.
Kingston, NY: Documentext, 1977

Robert C. Morgan, Declassified. New York : Horodner Romley Gallery, 1992

AUTHOR:

Robert C. Morgan was awarded the first ARCALE prize in International Art Criticism in Salamanca (Spain), in 1999 and the same year served on the UNESCO jury at the 48th Biennale di Venezia. In 2002, he gave the keynote speech in the House of Commons, London on the occasion of Shane Cullen’s exhibition celebrating the acceptance of “The Agreement” by the UK. Artist and author of numerous essays and books (in twenty languages), .Dr. Morgan is Professor Emeritus in art history at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and, in 2005, became a Senior Fulbright Scholar in the Republic of Korea. In 2011, Dr. Morgan was inducted into the European Academy of Sciences and Arts in Salzburg.

ESSAY: Shalom Newman’s Breathtaking Escape

by Robert C. Morgan. Ph.D.
2017

(Image © Robert C. Morgan)