First, you saw—or sort of saw—Big Little Dollhouse (2010), an arrangement of overlaid geometric shapes that suggest painting in process. Consisting of acrylic residue imprinted on huge polyurethane sheets (filling most of the north wall of the entrance space), the piece appears to be the negative image of multiple rectangles, as if they had been spray-painted and removed. The polyurethane, usually used to protect surfaces, is a new material for Joshua Neustein, an artist in his 70s who insistently and provocatively explores the constituents of art-making. A ladder was propped against the nearby overhang—with another in the main gallery—underscoring the notion of works in progress. A rock the size of a cantaloupe sat on the floor near the door. It was left over from another installation, but Neustein liked its look and kept it there as a possible but not absolute addition to his exhibition, "Boss," with its emphatic title that seemed, nonetheless, to question who was in charge. Neustein obviously was in control, as confirmed by the precise, self-conscious, handmade and very beautiful installation, but the works themselves invited more nuanced readings as attentive analyses of artistic process and thought.
With this show, his first solo in the U.S. in 20 years, Neustein, an Israeli artist born in Poland who came to New York to live in 1978, offered another of his discursive projects. The works ranged from 2008 to the present, with one exception. Shear Stress (1978)—two canvases, one red and one black, loosely attached to their stretchers—was first shown at Mary Boone in 1978; it was his initial venture into the deconstruction of painting. A multidisciplinary artist (drawing, painting, photography, film, installation, performance), Neustein focused on painting in "Boss," re-creating the semblance of an atelier that was perfectly suited to the gallery's architecture, which is half white cube, half purposely less finished.
Among the reductivist works on view were Triptych (2010), three canvases densely flecked with black acrylic, with additional stretcher bars migrating to the front, and La Femme Enfant (2011–12), a raw stretched canvas with a cut-out grid formation hanging on a polyurethane sheet containing the
painted, positive version of the grid. Little Canvas Anatomy (2011–12), consisting of two miniature canvases laid out on a marked plastic tarp on the floor with a slightly askew, pink-plastic toy high chair close by, further inquires into the state and nature of painting. For Monogram (2008) refers to Rauschenberg's famous work. It contains two blank stretched canvases propped up against a chair. The chair straddles the world of art in Neustein's updated take on a Combine, with its two front legs inside a set of stretcher bars on the ground, its back legs outside of it.
Neustein offers a visually compelling if understated commentary on ways to position, define and make art as a hybrid, provisional entity. His is not so much argument—although it is also that—as it is inconclusive proposals about control and the loss of it. In that sense, it is also deeply personal, deeply political.
Photo: Joshua Neustein: Triptych, 2010, canvas, acrylic and wood, 100 by 146 inches installed; at Untitled.