Artwork & Critical Essays > Critical Essays and Books

Shalom Neuman started to work on Classical Myth in 1969 while still an art student. It’s a triptych, featuring a black man and a white woman, both painted hyper-realistically, standing apart, mostly naked, but they aren’t presented with the laser intensity of, say, Lucian Freud, but as if uneasily aware of being looked at, and it’s in a dream-like setting. This student work has been made with such a sure painterly touch, such a knack for capturing both uneasy and/or posey body language and the texture of a wood table, that any viewer would have been likely to assume they could see a clear road ahead for the artist right there. This assumption would prove wrong but also kind of right.

Sometimes an art life can be transformed by a chance encounter with another artist’s work. As when Yves Tanguy, a young sailor on leave in Paris, spotted a painting from a bus, jumped off, became absorbed and told himself “I want to become a painter and to enter such a world as this”. The canvas was by de Chirico. For Shalom Neuman the game-changer was watching film footage of an event in 1960 at which Jean Tinguely, the French Nouveau Realiste, introduced a sculptural installation, Homage to New York, in the MoMA garden. His Rube Goldbergesque contraption of spinning wheels and sparks, didn’t wholly destroy itself as it was supposed to, but so what? “It’s painting, it’s sculpture, it’s music,” Neuman says. “Then it falls apart. And look how many people smile when they see it ...” His single-minded focus on painting was a dead duck. Fusionism was born.

Fusionism was a vision of an art-making which would weave together all the senses, absorb found stuffs from the actual, non-art world and which would incorporate IRL art-making actions, such as installations and performance. The ambitions seizing Neuman weren’t born from nothing, blowing in from nowhere. In the later 19th century the avant garde in Paris, the undisputed capital of the art world, was enlivened by several individuals set on melting formal boundaries in art-making. or ignoring them totally. In 1982 Jules Levy, a writer and publisher, gave the movement a name, Les Incoherents, and organized exhibitiona. Alphonse Allais showed artworks, one called First Communion of Anemic Young Girls In The Snow, this being a plain sheet of white Bristol paper, and in 1897 he wrote Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Great Deaf Man, if “writing” is the word, because it consisted of total silence, but for the coughs and sounds of physical movement in the audience. So both these radical breakthroughs began as jokes. Again why not? Humor tends to be approached with extreme caution by New York artists, but less so in Chicago and not at all in Europe, and Shalom Neuman is carrying the torch of the European avant garde by making it a live and continuous ingredient in his work

The specific felt need to explore and blend the different senses in making art also appeared the early days of the avant-garde. The central character in A Rebours, Joris-Karl Huysmans’ 1884 novel, Against Nature in English, which was an influential text amongst such Decadents of the 1890s as Oscar Wilde, was Des Esseintes, a fictive French duke wholly committed to making art by stimulating his senses. As when he built himself a “mouth organ”, a device studded with tongue-available miniature containers of liquors, the tastes of which, he felt, were equivalents for sounds. Whiskey, for instance, was a trombone, crème de menthe equivalent to a flute, kummel represented the sound of the oboe and liqueur brandy that of tubas. Thus Des Esseintes could “execute on his tongue a succession of voiceless melodies; noiseless funeral marches.”

The urge to salvage stuff, to re-use materials for current cultural advantage goes back way further than the avant-garde though, being wholly practical. A Roman friend in my young adulthood had a house which incorporated masonry built in the time of the Caesars and farm families in Devonshire in Britain’s West Country, where I partly grew up, would stud wet clay pots with sherds of colored china to give the results of household breakages a new enticing life. Picasso and Braque had brought this practice into the art world proper. Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning, a 1912 painting, has made the Modernist canon, as the first collage that was a premeditated art work, although Braque made Fruit Dish, and Glass, the first “papier collé”, which is to say just using pasted paper, that same year.

Found objects were made an accepted part of fine art practice by Kurt Schwitters and Marcel Duchamp. Breakages, throwaways,
cast-offs became usable for fine art. These fragments have I shored against my ruins, wrote TS Eliot in that early Modernist
masterwork, The Waste Land in 1919, just after World War I and during the lethal reign of Spanish ‘flu. This is the ball that
Shalom Neuman grabbed, and ran with.

Fusion Caskets, his earliest use of the term, occupied him between 1972 and 1984. Each casket is dominated by a single figure. They are painted on vertical oblong wood surfaces, which are much taller than they are wide, about a third shorter than a dressing room mirror or, come to that, a coffin. Each figure has a more or less realistically rendered face and the bodies may continue in a figurative mode down to trousers, boots, shoes, or stockings and high heels but they may also grow a claw, a fish tail or become an art nouveau swirl, and at the very bottom of the panel there may be a cross, and old shoe or a number of toothily grimacing faces. Found objects are embedded, as is tech, namely built-in multi-colored electric lights, along with a set-up invented by Neuman himself, working with a friend, Paul Szymanski, described in the catalog as - “a custom computerized dimming system programmed for infinite lighting variations.”

So was Shalom Neuman achieving what every struggling artist knows to be a handy move in career building, a signature style? Hardly. The works he produced between 1984 and 1994, are utterly other. These huge pieces feature such elements as sunsets that momentarily bring to mind the pastoral glories of the Hudson River School, until such elements as the helty-melty condos and office blocks in the painted cityscapes, the smoking factory towers, the stumps indicating a vanished forest are a drumbeat of clues as to just from where the red and orange coloration in those richly hued clouds is coming. The doughty oval frames of each piece are alive with sculptural modeling and their surfaces are set with found objects, such as figurines of Superman and the Hulk and painted images of the likes of the long-gone comicbook hero, Popeye, and a weaponised Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Such touches don’t suggest the comfortable embrace of Retro-Pop though so much as the dark story presented by the title of the series, Toxic Paradise. Such a seductive hand does Neuman have though that his cityscapes, landscapes and seascapes at first appear to offer an old-fashioned, picture-postcard-ready welcome while soon sneakily making it clear that it’s a poisonous welcome, just as it is in the Real – as in Really Threatened - World.

The Toxic Paradise sequence comes to a head, quite literally for once, in a handful of pieces in which a head dominates. It’s usually a similar head, male, two thirds surrounded by a frizz of Insane Clown/Genius Scientist hair, and with cheeks exploding sidewise like runaway comets. These pieces are installations, some involving video projections, and all are embedded with found objects. In that shown at the Cream Gallery, Paris, in 1985, for instance, the head is encircled by red and green plastic bottles with variously colored caps.

I’m not mentioning these details to be fussy. When the Cubists pasted newsprint onto a piece or Kurt Schwitters did so with a bus ticket it brought a raw breath of IRL into their work. When Pierre Cabanne asked Marcel Duchamp what had decided him to pick a specific object when making his readymades, Duchamp said “You have to approach something with indifference, as if you had no aesthetic emotion. The choice of readymades is always based on visual indifference and, at the same time, on the total absence of good or bad taste.” Duchamp’s readymades have inevitably been submerged in aesthetics ever since. One critique I have read compares the urinal to a seated Buddha.

Neuman’s use of found objects utterly other, so much so that they might more properly be called not found objects but chosen, since he uses them as art materials, like clay or pigment. The heads that he comes up with, these in-your-face faces, do have precedents – artists, like children, tend to love doing things with faces - such as the wondrous vegetable assemblage heads and figures of the 16th century Milanese artist, Giuseppe Arcimboldo and Aha, a group of heads by the terrific Brit artist/illustrator of the 1930s, Rex Whistler, but Shalom Neuman has been rolling his human heads into Post-Modern, indeed Post-Human territory.

Neuman’s Death Row sequence, made between 1994 and 2002, look wholly different. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? They are mostly 22 by 17 inches, which is small compared to their predecessors, they are executed on wood in oil and acrylics and their color range is muted, again compared to their predecessors. His found objects are heftier than in the earlier work and include wiring, wheels, machine parts and an alarm clock and he has shaped a couple on the upper edge, in one case morphing the piece into what appear to be a couple of chimney fires.

So to Amerika, the series of Head paintings that Neuman worked on between 2007 and 2014, then on to Mini Amerika upon which he worked until 2018. This oeuvre was published in two editions by the Narodni Gallery, the National Gallery in Prague, and there is some dramatic appropriateness to this. Amerika is the title of a book by a German-Jewish novelist, Franz Kafka, a Modernist classic, published in 1927, three years after his death, which deals with the hard times of a young immigrant, and was also published with the title, Lost in America. Kafka was born in Prague, then the capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia. Shalom Neuman was also born in Prague, now the capital of the Czech Republic, to a Jewish family, many of who had died the Holocaust. Post-war his father had learned that he was on a death list and the family departed for Israel when he was one. He had been eleven when they made it to the US.

Each of the paintings in the Amerika series is dominated by a single central head, as in a conventional portrait or a passport photo, which is just how they are presented, with the subject’s name slapbang beneath. These are the faces of Shalom Neuman’s America, faces that he is proudly bringing back home to put in Europe’s face, And don’t they just radiate it. Angel, the opener, wears a red kerchief on his head and has a micro Mickey Mouse in front of his broad grin, and is succeeded by face after face. They are put together from brightly colored plastic parts of devices like telephones, unidentifiable thingummies, toys, figurines and recognisable bits and pieces, like American Eagle caps, but you cannot resist reading expressions into them, such as doleful Abner, perky Elsie, startled Myron and horror-struck Nico. And these expressions are direct, unguarded, quite impossible to see as anything other than American, Neuman’s galere of heads not being the place to look for Mona Lisa’s complicated smile, the twisted anguish of a Francis Bacon nor Edvard Munch’s wrenching shriek.

It’s to the point that the artist’s modus operandi with found objects gives his heads a thoroughly 3D presence. They occupy space. So do his installations, his mighty twin golems, indeed his range of documented Fusion events. Shalom Neuman, as noted above, has never made the career-building moves most working artists try for. His career has been purposefully outsiderish, even being outside the Outsider Art demiverse. But Shalom Neuman has built himself an unique Outside. A big one, too, and it’s only getting bigger.

ESSAY: ALL TOGETHER NOW by Anthony Haden-Guest