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To enter the universe created by New York-based artist Shalom Neuman is to enter a realm of glitzy brilliance, artistic virtuosity, and technological sophistication, tempered by an underlying vision of the world that is anything but upbeat. Neuman calls his work “fusion art,” and it’s art with a message. Combining color, motion, and sound into a multidisciplinary, multisensory extravaganza aimed at appealing to more than just the visual sense, it reflects and comments on a contemporary world he sees as seriously out of joint and in need of repair. From toxic waste to ethnic prejudice and hatred to the heaps of garbage our culture seems to produce nonstop, his art takes on some of the momentous - and terrifying - issues of our time, issues not just confined to one country or culture, but of worldwide import and consequence (another aspect of fusion art).

To meet his artistic needs, Neuman has adapted traditions ranging from painting to assemblage to installation to performance art into unique blends that can be disturbing to view, but are always incisive in their analysis of a world that often seems dangerously out of control.

Not least among Neuman’s work is his Amerika paintings, a series of portraits bearing simple titles of everyday names like Evelyn, Norman, LuLu, or Fred.

Conventionally speaking, portraits are likenesses in paint that aim at revealing something about their subjects. Think of the remarkable scrutiny Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn (1601-1669) undertook of himself in a series of self-portraits detailing his personal journey from young man to old age, or the portraits by American painter Alice Neel (1900-1984), which manage to penetrate the surface of her subjects to capture something of the inner landscape they inhabit.

Portraits can also reveal something of the era and circumstances of their subjects. For example, those by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) of elegantly clad members of the European and American upper classes during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries suggest a society seemingly at ease with itself, its place in the world, and even its place in the universe. Or there is Gustav Klimt (1865-1918), whose portraits of fin-de-siècle Viennese high society often suggest a milieu overwhelmed by material objects and personal possessions.

The portraits in Neuman’s Amerika series, on the other hand, are of a different order altogether. First, they are of imaginary individuals. Second, the faces they depict are created not just from paint, but from everyday objects discarded as useless by their original owners, then appropriated by Neuman for his art: a small plastic toy or marble serving as an eye, a badminton birdie or syringe as a nose, a bent toy stethoscope as a mouth, and so on. Third, they incorporate sound effects like music and spoken word poetry, available at the push of a button.

Neuman’s portraits at first glance appear colorful, playful, whimsical, seeming to mimic real people, even to the point of speaking or producing music, in a humorous way. But a careful examination shows them to be more than a little disturbing. Constructed from the detritus of our society, they reach beyond the individual to comment on a culture where rampant consumerism threatens to engulf us all, a form of identity theft writ large that threatens our very humanity.

As the title of the series indicates, Neuman identifies the source of this calamity with trends in contemporary America, and the message is clear: We laugh to our peril at the superficial glitter of our society. We laugh to our downfall if we fail to understand and come to terms with its darker implications. But it’s not just a warning for Americans. In a world becoming increasingly Americanized, it’s a timely message for everyone.

Lester Strong, 2011

Lester Strong is Special Projects Editor for Art & Understanding (A&U) magazine. His articles on artists as varied as David Hockney, Judy Chicago, Andy Warhol, Ross Bleckner, Harmony Hammond, Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf, among many others, have appeared in publications across the United States.

ESSAY: SHALOM NEUMAN AMERIKA

by Lester Strong
2011

Image of Lester Strong © Lester Strong LinkedIn page