Critical Essays and Books
Shalom Neuman’s hyperactive production of in-everybody’s-face artworks has long been one of the most singular projects on the contemporary artscape and his drawings are a strong element within it. As one would expect, there are clear parallels between the evolution of both these drawings and of Neuman’s graphic work generally and THE DRAWINGS ALSO CHANNEL what his audience gets to see, hear and physically experience in the paintings, sculptures, assemblages involving a multiplicity of found objects, ephemera and mixed-media agglomerations that make up the best-known body of the creator of Fusionism’s work.
It’s unsurprising, for instance, that Neuman, a dab hand at figurative hyper-realist painting, including portraiture, the man who painted Classical Myth, in 1969, has equivalent drawing skills. These can be seen in, a number of female nudes, men riding horses, the likeness of an elegant young Black dude in a cravat that could have been made in the time of Ingres, and, most remarkably I think, in a sequence of studies of performers, some in circus costumery, but others being dancers, and strikingly so in Celebration. This is a complex piece he made in 1973 depicting an onstage group, amongst which a slender female dancer is hoisted aloft from a group of male performers, their bodies being rendered in the round, but the dancer mostly in silhouette, and the space into which she is ascending being a convincing interplay of shadow and luminous light.
What, I think, might strike some as rather startling is Neuman’s choice of a tool to make such drawings: A ballpoint pen. This is an instrument which many who make drawings – well, okay, me - might consider too surgical to be appropriate for nuance or shading, too unwelcoming of chance, too unforgiving of the accidental, but Neuman uses it consistently to create remarkable and delicate effects, both in miniature and broad-screen, as in Celebration, which, Neuman told me, was one of a suite executed for the Pittsburgh Ballet Company.
Was there photoshopping involved, I asked? Given the representational skills I assumed a Yes.
“No. It’s all purely ballpoint pen. It took thousands of hours. It’s very tedious.”
Neuman was making these precise, neo-classical drawings in his early 20s. Which happened to be when he was also birthing Fusionism. “At the same time I was working with light,” he says. “In 1968 and 1969 my brother-in-law at that time was an engineer and he built me motion detectors. And I was working with plexiglass”.
A Fusionist manifesto declares that the use of such tech creates the art of the future. Just as in another body of Neuman’s work, his color xeroxes, which involve collage, with the central image typically being a photograph of a female face, often with one eye re-located with disturbing effect, and drawing with colored pencils and ballpoint pen. In these too advanced tech plays a significant part.
“It was part of experimenting with technique,” Neuman says. “I would create collages, I would color charge them ... I would draw in color pencil on them ... I would place them in lightboxes, and I would layer different drawings and collages, one behind the other, so if you increase the intensity of the light the image in the background would disappear and the one in the foreground would fade out, and you could create a gradual transition. I was thinking in terms of modulating light and changing images. It was an attempt to change the image through light.”
Neuman is firm though that his drawings are in no way connected to the work for which he is known. “My drawings are not Fusionist,” he says. “They are just a young artist being influenced by the surrounding world. And by a previous generation of artists. I really wanted to master techniques and use my academic skills. Many of them were just exercises in a way. But also I couldn’t help being emotionally expressive. Because they are all automatic drawings. None of them are preconceived or planned in any way. So my drawings don’t represent Fusionism. They were mainly influenced by my exposure to Surrealism and Dada artists, academically trained artists. Dali and others.”
Certainly there was a Surreal disjunctiveness to Neuman’s drawing program as it evolved and frequently they get into dark spaces, darker than most Surrealism. A naked man shrieks beneath a crescent moon in a 1966 drawing. An undated drawing of three hanged men is called Hanging Around and in another undated drawing, Rejection, a man appears to be swallowing another man’s head. Elements of wildness can appear in the neo-classic drawings too. On the left Celebration the bodies of the performers are beginning to dissolve and on the far left a naked woman has a staring eye and a third breast growing from her back. Whatever is being enacted in these drawings tends to come from a ominous specific place, as with the undated drawing of three hanged men, which is called Hanging Around, and another undated drawing, Rejection, in which a man appears to be swallowing another man’s head. A 1973 piece that situates sketches of Richard Nixon and his henchmen Haldeman and Erhlichman, alongside a Gulf Oil sign, a container of Lemon Twist and three screaming figures unsettles.
That too is untitled. But that drawing was made not long after the Watergate affair so had Neuman worked it out in advance?
Nope. “I would just pick up a ballpoint pen and draw,” Neuman says. “Whatever came out, whether it was a figure or not, I didn’t know until I did it.”
In a 1991 drawing a man with a bulbous-headed man clutches a briefcase and the man behind has an exploding head. This iffy semi-comic mood is consistent and often, as with Neuman’s sculptures and paintings it achieves a level of dark hilarity, which seems as fine a way of confronting and surviving the human tragi-comedy as any. Indeed I would say that this aspect of Neuman’s graphic work reaches a kind of apogee with Belle Catastrophe, a text by Carl Watson – okay, it translates as Lovely Disaster - for which between 1996 and 1997 Neuman executed a suite of seven full-page illustrations.
In TV Life, the first of these, a number of feral faces – including those of screaming humans, monsters and a doleful human skull – are gathered around a male figure with a TV set in lieu of a face. Behind them are bendy Mies van de Rohe-esque tower blocks, just the kind of helty-melty skyscrapers that he had been painting in Toxic Paradise between 1984 and 1994. Communicable Desperation, the next is utterly different, being a grey-toned study of two seated humans, communicating, yes, desperation.
At the front of All These Exhausted Howls, the intense man to the left is holding a handgun, there’s a biker to the right, a demon is screaming dead center, there’s much else, and convincing force-fields radiate in the rear. Omnipotent Manipulatory Power, another image, seems to hail from the Uncanny Valley of AI, being that it features an apparent human, shown in profile holding an auctioneer’s gavel, but with various tech devices studded into his or her skull, so that it might be computer-generated or perhaps a robot, and there is another humanoid profile floating in a dark globe above. To the right there is a giant mound, apparently of garbage, and Neuman has rendered this entire scene as precisely as it is irrational, which seems appropriate to our desperately irrational times – times for which the entire body of Shalom Neuman’s work seems almost alarmingly well fitted.