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Joshua Neustein

Ultra Violet Catastrophe, USA, 1985

Acryl/canvas on wood, 125x175 cm

Courtesy of the artist

What is most palpable in Neustein’s painted maps is that these maps do not serve as functional representations of a place. Detached from the consensus of world cartography, these are private maps, formulated from within Neusteins private language. But since Neustein has created an oeuvre of maps over a period of 30 years, one can discern certain constants and parallels, terms that can be deciphered and used as keys for the general public to decode.

Neustein’s map paintings are not so much maps as they are a schema of markings; drawn lines and dots, sprayed paints and brushstrokes, crystals and grids, metal objects and powders, the history of a region, the naming of a history, a political concept put into art practice. They could not function as maps in the conventional sense, i.e. a navigational tool to make one’s way around a city, a mountain range or border crossing. Neustein is not really invested in those aspects of what the map represents. When Neustein creates a map, he investigates the strata, the inherent fossils of the indigenous and migrating nations, conquests of cultures, wars and histories, those emblematic layers which are part of the locale. In his findings he often unveils a forsaken story, the anxious history of the region.

Neustein formulates and paints his maps in layers. Projecting them on the walls, he surrounds himself with world geography as an abstract all encompassing surround – around scenery. The canvas undercoats are painted brushstrokes of color values and hues, which provide the pictorial background. He applies the representational parameters of the geographies in gestural lines, loosely drawn with a marker or an oil stick, giving the general outline and major markings of the map. There is a sense of nervousness in the line but not an expressive nervousness, rather a restrained ambivalence of his reductive depiction. Neustein then sprays the map markings with an apparatus, creating a vague overcoat, reducing that facet of detail one searches for in maps. The act of spraying paint to depict a map, to obfuscate the specifics and meticulous characteristic inherent in a map is an act of conquest. Finally his map is one of fantasy as much as reality.

The dispersion of the paint, the blurring of the boundaries is part of his perception of what constitutes a map. Creating a two way exchange between the pictorial and the tutorial, void of information and names, Neustein paints unmarked topographies, incomplete continents. They exist as anonymous spray painted fields, nameless geographies. He often places objects on the marked territories, leaves raw fringes of the canvas, which remain loose from the frame, visible and exposed. Powder falls off the canvas to the wall under the map, implying a fall-out toxin, a reaction to historical change. The work process itself reveals a stance or sociological attitude on standardized conceptions of geography. Neustein opts for Geography as a work in progress.

Neustein’s maps address an idea rather than a symbol, he juxtaposes contrived, synthetic borders against natural borders of the terrain. This dichotomy of map reading made me curious as to what constitutes a map in cartographic terms. I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that the origin of map making and its terminologies lie in the observation of the patterns of settlement, exploration, migration, and heritage of the inhabitants. In addition there is an emphasis and meaning involved in the naming of places, what is referred to as Toponymy, the scientific study of place-names. There is a reference that claims the early Toponymists were storytellers and poets who described in detail the origin of certain place-names in order to elucidate their tales. Ah, here was a key to Neustein’s mapmaking, a taxonomy personified in language and cultures.

This investigative endeavor serves as an option for Neustein to detach himself from the inevitable appropriation of a place and transfigure places into art. Neustein remarks that early on he sought after a changed reality for belonging “as a childmy family was displaced. Wecrossed a lot of borders and let go of a lot of countries, only the map remained with us. I was fascinated at border crossings;a certain confusion reignedamong the peoplein transit, a slight panicas officials checkeddocuments and decided collective fates.I suppose I wanted an anchor to something firm.I wanted to stand on the border, exactly on top of the purple border lineon the map.”

Wendy Berlin Shafir