Review Jim Feast
In his writings on the art market, Robert C. Morgan has noted a special equation. As, in the 1980s, more money was pumped in, the more the human qualities of the art that was sold were washed away. No longer would one find prominence given to the eccentric visionaries of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. No more the Dadaist humor of a Rauschenberg, the profound weight of a Barnet Newman or the lacy exuberance and firmness of a Joan Mitchell. Instead, the slick and the commercial took center stage, and nowadays in the new art fairs around the world, art is nothing more than an aesthetic form of French ticklers, used to give slight frissons to the inflated rich. By the 1990s, artists, such as the multi-media giant Shalom, whose recent art book I am examining here, who harkened back to the greats of the postwar period, found themselves marginalized.
It’s easy to see how Shalom got himself in this situation of neglect from much of the establishment. He committed three heresies.
Heresy 1. Shalom tackles the big issues. While the reigning truth is that art is about the mystically inconsequential, Shalom’s work gets into a vociferous dialogue with pollution, celebrity culture vapidity, violence, and transgressive sex.
Case in point, his Toxic Paradise series. In the center of the work is a tinker-toy pristine view of a city street, an industrial site or, perhaps, a strip of sea; each lit by a garish sunset. The landscapes are bare of people or have, at best, a solo motorist or pedestrian, and this is a marked contrast to the large frames, which are overpopulated with doll and toy figures as well as machine parts and gooey detritus. In fact, the things in the margins seem poised to eat the pictures. Am I wrong to see this as allegory of how outsider artists menace the pristine world of the galleries? More centrally, it suggests how outside-the-frame pollutants (in the sense that they are beyond mainstream consciousness) threaten our mental and physical existence.
Heresy 2. Shalom’s art is a spectacular grab-bag. Most of his pieces roll all the arts (painting, sculpture, poetry, music) into one hard-to-digest, emotionally dense, unflinchingly powerful amalgam. He calls this Fusion Art, and it can be viewed in his Golems, double life-size robots, who, from a fixed perch, roll their eyes, swing their arms, and spout poetry. They are made up of found objects and chests blazoned with fragments of paintings. Critic Donald Kuspit calls them “total works of concentrated art, ingenious fusions of sculpture, and painting in operatically larger than life figures.” What is not mentioned in that description is the antic, gleeful, boisterous side of these raucous playthings, who seem to be Frankensteins that, when freed, did not run amok, but applied to Breton to be surrealists.
Heresy 3. His art engages in a broad-shouldered dialogue with the people. In other words, for all its sophisticated use of materials, elaboration of color and shadow, and technical virtuosity, this art aims straight at the popular gut.
Shalom grasps the two desires of the masses. For one, the people want whimsy. I don’t mean nonsense or trivia but the sense of freedom that comes, for instance, from playing with, even manhandling, the sacred icons of pop culture. As Robert Morgan notes, “His psychic power is manifested through the absorption of popular culture.”
For two, and even more so, the masses in their art want powerful emotional force. Of course, this desire can be exploited as it is when, as commonly in Hollywood productions, it is cynically manipulated, but Shalom only lets his creative juices flow when he is moved by straightforward, headstrong passion.
Look to his Fusion Caskets, described by Tsuarah Litzky: “Most of the figures are clothed in a mod fashion … particularly one hip guy wearing bright orange sunglasses to cover his blind eyes. [There is also] one sad punk princess [with] a zipper for a mouth.” This collection of clowns, mermaids, and rough riders stand or sit assertively and defiantly in narrow frames. It’s a portrait gallery of the eccentrics, riff-raff, and average Joes and Jills that make up his Lower East Side neighborhood, observed with a palpable compassion. It’s clear that Shalom loves them for their idiosyncrasy, not in spite of it.
Paradoxically enough, in today’s U.S., as an artist, you become a rebel if you communicate. Shalom has declared himself that kind of rebel. Rather than standing in a corner talking to elite connoisseurs, he opens himself vulnerably to the big questions, using a common idiom, peppered with panache, heart and the multiple colors of melody.