Monday, November 3, 2014

Beyond Borders: Marcus Neustetter

Proximity I - IV

Within the last month, Marcus Neustetter has put on one solo exhibition, a joint show with Stephen Hobbs at the Rubixcube Gallery, a performance/installation at the Rocket Factory in Maboneng and launched a new set of stamps of his own design. This level of productivity isn’t unusual. There have been years when he has put out several solo exhibitions, participated in group shows, locally and internationally, and created performances, films.

Neustetter’s incredible artistic output can be ascribed to a number of idiosyncratic qualities; he is a 24/7 artist propelled by an almost childlike glee and curiosity about the world and interpreting it, his fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach to art-making, in which he is willing to try anything and prizes spontaneity, and art making which demands or is conceived to deal with space (physical or ideological) in the “moment”, the present.

In this way each work he makes is quickly replaced by another and art making or the art object isn’t such a loaded, weighted or agonising endeavour with long-term consequences. In other words, for Neustetter art is play. It’s a way of undercutting the traditional view of art as elitist and highly valuable.
It may have been his performance and collaboration with the Stockhausen-inspired musician Jill Richards in Antjie in Berlin (it had a run at the Market Theatre in 2012) which best embodied his approach. This live performance saw Neustetter intuitively respond to Richards’s music and Antjie Krog’s texts via abstract lines and marks, which he wasn’t completely in control of – he observed them on a screen where they were projected and enlarged, and therefore distorted.

Placing physical barriers between himself and his mark-making or image production (usually by not looking at what he is doing) is something he has employed quite a bit in his practice; it has retained the sense of spontaneity he craves, allowing for the accidental and ensured an end product that is abstract and exists to some degree as a by-product of other activities – such as looking at the subject; either tracing the stars in the sky or plotting the landscape he observes from the window in an airplane.

These optical barriers might have coincided with his fixation with observation – however, it also relieved him of the huge burden that comes from fully investing in the art product, where it is the focus and not just as a record or document of another activity. Through a turn in his practice that saw him dispense with technology such as Google tracings, photography and videography, he came to valourise unfinished, crude or seemingly insignificant, random drawings as proof of the incredible vast spaces he has attempted to map, whether in the sky or on the ground, for this allowed him to authentically articulate the manner in which the material world couldn’t be crafted into coherent, visually resolved images. His form of mapping therefore substantiated the impossibility of ordering space while paradoxically pursuing it.

His exhibition at Art On Paper, Defining Lines, marks another significant shift in his practice; for the works are not byproducts of another activity, there are no optical barriers that would place him at a remove from them and he has laboured over them – he didn’t show for a year. He is now invested in his mark, which is no longer spontaneous or accidental; the marks in this show are deliberate strokes, they are large and bold and aesthetically pleasing, though his vocabulary remains abstract. He is painting too; with ink and gauche.
This exhibition therefore presents a bold leap for Neustetter and the result is one of his strongest shows to date. Undoubtedly it is the most visually thrilling; and as its title intimates is centred on the lines that define it - the works are largely characterised by thick bold black lines, which signify those synonymous with boundaries on maps.

So, yes, once again he is concerned with map making but, this time, he distorts conventional cartography by zoning in on the invisible borders between countries. He enlarges these lines and imagines “the space” that exists inside them – this liminal space between belonging and separate, not quite on the other side of the border, but existing between borders. This ties in with his practice, which has so often been consumed by depicting this in-between space, whether it is between the sky and ground or between how something exists but cannot be seen - such as natural or scientific phenomena.

In this exhibition, he aims to make visible the invisible; the ideological baggage that sustains these invisible frontiers - they tend to only be given expression on maps.  He doesn’t expose the specific politics, nor is one aware which boundaries they are, except for a work with a very long-winded title that lists over two dozen countries that have been layered over each other to form an abstract painting where these diverse places become unified by a uniform line that runs around them.  They exist because of these lines.
Nations, countries and identities are defined by these jagged lines – they are rarely straight, implying that they are not artificially conceived. To give expression to the energy and investment in these national boundaries and the friction that often ensues in response to their perceived impenetrability, he presents works with abstract expression between these lines. It is rendered in colour and via rough short lines mirroring the visual vocabulary of cartography, a visual short-hand for a complex set of events, or conditions. They  bring to mind those he has employed in his crude drawings in the past, summoning a kind of naïve rendition of friction. These chaotic lines were intended to resemble the drawings his two-year-old daughter makes, he says.

This echoes a mode he employs to render that which cannot be represented but also his idiosyncratic way of approaching big topics through naïve forms that expresses a kind of resignation in the face of such overwhelming conditions (how do, can you deal with nationhood, identity, war as a phenomenon) but also a persistence to explore them regardless and surrender to whatever can be discovered through this process.
In works such as Abrasion, he splits these dark borderlines, revealing in the cracks, light and colour, as if exposing the unseen dynamics. This work and others such as the one with a very long-winded title (too long to list here), brings to mind the Cave openings that Neustetter was quite recently fixated on.
Explorers, historians and scientists have traditionally viewed caves as a sort of magical portal into long-buried world's but Neustetter has reversed this view by positioning the light at the opening of caves as a threshold promising discovery. In a way, this exhibition at AOP is also about reversing perspective: shifting attention to the line rather than the space it demarcates.
It is a way of arriving at a familiar place anew. The abstract language he embraces advances this, as  the pleasing visual character of the works does too: by taking these solid boundaries and aestheticising them, rendering them as abstract, he exploits them as imagined constructs and in so doing acknowledges what they are while similarly deconstructing them.

There was always a kind of poetry to Neustetter’s work but it almost always has been rooted in the ideas driving it or how he arrived at it – like tracing constellations in the sky with his gaze fixed on it and not the drawing of them. In this show, however, the end products are poetic – compositionally, aesthetically, on a sensual level. Faultlines is a good example of this; this painting is a mapping of a landscape, it’s geography via a concentration of strokes or marks.  Neustetter probably worked with a reference but now he is able to truly inhabit the imaginative space he renders because he is immersed in it rather than his subject.
In other words, his gaze has shifted to his art, it is not just functioning as the tool to discover the world, but rather is a world within itself. - first published in The Sunday Independent.

1 comment:

carol said...

This is such a well considered and layered review which I found most interesting and informative. Mary you give us the best. Thank you and well done Marcus.