Fond memories confronted by hideous reality
By Dorothy A. Wilson
The first time I went to FusionArts Museum in the Lower East Side, I heard nothing but funny stories about artist Shalom Neuman, whos new solo exhibition there is anything but. Instead, his current show is a painful social commentary about war, inhumanity, genocide and the current state of the world. Entitled Lamed Vav, its also interactive. Ouch.
What a contrast from the opening I went to years before, which was my totally entertaining introduction to Fusion Art (the seamless interdisciplinary integration of all artistic mediums, according to the museums mission statement, a genre of its very own). There were these two giant punked-out robots, fully operational and acting out in a rebellious manner (Google 15-ft. Robots and Cats, great music by TM Stevens). Other pieces of artwork or sculpture elicited unexpected and unusual video, audio or text; they were engaging on numerous levels. In addition to these creative oddities, the museum also displayed a large, surreal oil painting (Classical Myth, a triptych), as well as several exceptional shadowboxes, which Ive always adored.
Lamed Vav is neither entertaining nor adorable. It is an intense and powerful collection of Fusion Art thats based on the merits of nine ancient (and hidden) saints, without whom our world would cease to exist. The portraits of these mystical men are multidisciplinary and complex, with extra-ordinary color combinations and contrasts throughout, yet the faces are grotesque. Painted with thick, mostly mottled acrylics, and framed by a delicate/ornate print background, the heads and torsos are composed of embedded found objects that represent misery, destruction and torture: dirty pants, burnt rubber, mutilated dolls, disposable plastic farm animals, detonators, damaged red velvet and gold textiles, skeletal dinosaurs, a gas mask, the eight ball, a disjointed black arm, one unfortunate, upside-down rubber chicken, and a scary array of abandoned gadgets, do-dads and childrens toys (atrocities are us).
A tremendous volume of both technique and technology is at work in each piece. Three contain a monitor that plays a black and white video loop of devastating footage from Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, and the Holocaust. The well-edited, yet horrible and disturbing montage of grisly images, diabolical political leaders and fire is accompanied by sad and haunting music from composer/cellist Adam Fisher. Theres evil and darkness everywhere you look with this exhibit; beneath one of the more elaborate installations, a sinister, black electric furnace with ominous flames burns continuously.
Neumans artwork is a thoughtful vs. insane memorial to victims of tragedy, past and present. Each abnormal saint is situated above a rectangular shelf; artificial religious candles, little blue lights and mutant red bulbs light several of these altars. Others contain a musical device or toy that has been reprogrammed to make loud and irritating noises, beeps, shrieks and static. Some of the instruments have keyboards, flashing lights and/or employ major LED dysfunction. This hobby is called circuit bending, and the museum even encourages audience participation, ouch again. In keeping with the Jewish mourning ritual of placing pebbles on top of a loved ones tombstone, there is also bowl of stones for visitors to put on the artworks.
The opening reception for Lamed Vav was a diverse orchestration of live music, poetry readings, dimmers, bells and whistles. But Hitler, Pol Pot, Milosovic, it was overwhelming, and extremely difficult to handle. On its own, the exhibit is a freaky, extremely visual soundscape; the masterful music from the video fuses with the eerie/discordant noises emitted by the bent instruments (Shalom made me stand in the middle of the room to experience this sensation, thanks). One piece was playing an annoying and repetitive percussion beat that sounded like militaristic marching; at one point, this disturbing noise was in sync with one of the monitors (while Hitler and his troops and tanks were parading down a boulevard). I had to get the hell out of there.
Later that evening, in a more ignorant and blissful state, I thought about that earlier (more happy-go-lucky) visit to FusionArts Museum. Id been admiring an interesting shadowbox, when the director of the museum told me that each and every time the piece was shown, someone either would steal it, or parts of it (because one of the found objects within was a rosary). I thought this was a scream. Another ridiculous desecration of art occurred when an expensive, specialized mold/sculpture of challah bread got stolen from a large, fully fused statue. In both absurd cases, it was poor Neumans art that had been targeted.
But then I was handed a set of crazy-looking baseball cards. At first I was confused, when upon closer inspection I realized that not only did these things have nothing to do with sports, they werent even cards. It was a series of stickers with controversial religious images/icons (Jesus, rabbis, red-capped Roman Catholic cardinals and Mao) superimposed over the players faces. Each fascinating miniature piece of artwork was a full-color, photographic collage that also contained a tiny religious symbol in the lower corner. Long ago, Nueman made thousands of these perplexing/blasphemous decals and put them up in hundreds of locations throughout the world (Japan, Italy, Germany, Canada, Poland, China, Russia, the Czech Republic, France, everywhere hes exhibited his artwork). To this day, he still receives reports of their existence, how funny was that.
People who were not amused have stormed out of FusionArts Museum for years. One time a lady left in a huff because a discarded Christmas tree was making an environmental statement. Another incident was over a battery-operated audio chip that emitted profane language (and/or quotes from Kafka). Throw in a painting with naked people and a famous baby some people even go ballistic. After getting bummed out by the powerful and depressing Lamed Vav exhibit, my reaction was mild by comparison. All I felt like doing was sticking my head in an oven...
Quietly departing the reception, I gently placed one of the mourning stones on a piece of artwork, and stole another. At least that was fun (plus, I once heard a saying that if youve ever been hurt, to steal something small/symbolic, in spite).