The Heckscher Museum of Art is currently featuring Robert S. Neuman’s Ship to Paradise. Like the museum itself, this exhibition presents a revelatory experience—a tasty dose of escapism just off the beaten path of bustling Huntington Village.
In the late 70s and early 80s, Neuman was commissioned by August Heckscher, grandson of the museum’s founder, to create a series of lithographs and etchings to tell the tale in pictures of humanist Sebastian Brandt’s medieval satire The Shyp of Fooles, which chronicles the hubris and folly of man as he reaches (often in vain, occasionally with success) for his own salvation.
Neuman’s interpretation of this trip is a trip. His sense of detail, jagged construction, high-minded symbolism and powerful use of color convey the story of man’s ultimate quest with a thought-provoking blend of intensity and irreverence. The ships in these works appear set to sail with no map and no course; the vessels are rudderless, directionless and consumed by the chaos of the voyage, with little regard for the destination. This may be Neuman’s lightest (and heaviest) message—the journey is the destination.
“Everybody’s trying to get to Paradise somehow, it seems,” Neuman said in an interview with Archives of American Art in 1991. “I thought, how in the world do you do that? Do you go in an Oldsmobile? How do you get there? I thought maybe you get there on a medieval barque.”
The Ship To Paradise series has a soft chronology, taking the viewer from the launch of this spiritual vessel, across the turbulent open seas of life and eventually flying headfirst into the abyss of eternity. Neuman’s surrealist and somewhat psychedelic interpretation of “the journey of life” is full of subtle humor, jutting angles and the watchful eye of an obscure, yet omniscient presence.
In “Tow” (1980), Neuman’s dualistic interpretation of the human condition is conveyed by utilizing vast swaths of the color wheel and a confident blending of surrealist composition and cartoon-like depiction. Here it appears the ship to paradise has run aground. Oars jut out at odd angles, debris and small oddities hang from the stressed out masts and—in a stroke of wry brilliance—a shitted up tow truck is taking the boat to presumable safety…save for the fact that the tow truck is headed off a cliff, with no sign of rescue in sight. Aside from the lighthearted fatalism in the piece, “Tow” also speaks to the ease with which Neuman bends the historical timeline. On some level, Neuman himself is the omniscient presence, pulling archetypes from the past and the present to create something that speaks to the then, the now and the forever for all of us.
“I believe art is humanistic in its essence,” Neuman told Archives of American Art, “and it should stay that way however it’s presented to the artist.” “Tow” seems to encapsulate this belief as it captures and represents Neuman’s worldview: Paradise is fool’s gold and the end is always near—but that should never keep us from embracing the journey, with all its intense color, inevitable adventure, potential treachery and endless luminosity.
Ship To Paradise “Encumbered by a Great Rock” best exemplifies this amalgam and this alchemy. The piece is a pure explosion of light and energy. Fierce swatches of bright sun yellow pervade. The ship itself undulates like a leviathan, bending—but not breaking—as it tries to navigate planet-sized obstacles and keep its course. The entire universe seems to curve with the will of the ship, showing both its flexibility and its restriction—its willingness to play along with our plight—or laugh in the face of our schemes and desires.
Further along in his travels, Neuman’s two renderings of the “The Wreck” are particularly engaging with their Titanic-esque sense of doom, articulated with assured depth of field and judicious use of stark yellows, oranges and blues. In one version, the ship’s nearly been turned inside out, its guts spiraling and spilling over the harsh rocks. But still the fatal moment is illuminated by a faint, yet persistent candle—a flickering beacon of hope in the darkness, a symbol of man’s relentless, if not completely warranted, optimism in the face of total loss.
The exhibition’s closing statement is “Paradise Found,” in which Neuman finally makes reference to mankind, albeit in the form of a skeleton. Salvation is found, but only in death. It’s a dark message on the surface, but the bold whimsy and dizzying intricacy that Neuman infuses into the quest only underscores his truest point—death is certain, life is anything but…so it’s best to enjoy the ride.
Robert S. Neuman’s Ship To Paradise is on display at the Heckscher Museum of Art until November 25. For more info, visit heckscher.org.