Diane Neumaier has consistently explored the notion that imagery, symbols, and icons need to be looked at in relation to one another and to culture, or re-presented in a different context, in order to expose their many possible meanings. Through this act of, Neumaier exposes the inequalities and idiosyncrasies of gender, class, and race identity in places like the American museum system, corporate structures, government and the mass media.
Neumaier's newest series, titled PEKOHCTPYKUNR/RECONSTRUCTION, draws from imagery she made when she was in Russia as part of an exchange between Rutgers University and the Russian Union of Art Photographers. The presentation and editing of this body of work is a collaboration with Russian photographer Boris Mihailov, with whom she worked both in Russia and at Light Work during their tandem residencies in July, 1993. Neumaier intends this work to be an installation, but here a part is reproduced in a series of carefully meditated groupings.
Russian culture, faced with political and economic upheaval, as well as the basic collapse of an entire ideology of 'how to live' presented Neumaier with a setting in which the recontextualization of symbols and icons was particularly appropriate. In the first grouping de-faced and broken public monument, shot with a paint gun to make marks on tradition similar to those made by Pollack, echo both the defacing of history and the making of the future. Here one sees not only a break with the ideas of the political figures represented, but a disregard for the aesthetics put forth by the Communist state sanctioned art. Neumaier's image of the once untouchable, but now fallen, Stalin has been reoriented and 'righted' to celebrate its chipped graffitied form.
Neumaier's use of a point-and-shoot camera, and the snapshot aesthetic, resonates the idea of breaking with tradition. She employs a photographic grassroots technique with her fine art expression. To further the tension between prescribed highbrow and lowbrow expression in photographic representation, Neumaier juxtaposes a snapshot of two friends with the line of defaced sculptures above them. The sculptures, when recontextualized with the comical 'unphotogenic' stance of the two posers, become more human and less monolithic-- a public sculpture that better represents the true character of the Russian peoples, or humanity in general.
In the second grouping Neumaier photographs the backside of bust sculptures again from a public park. This backside shows a hollowness- a concave, chiseled out space that refers more to the symbol's lacks than to its likeness. Neumaier's image at the base of this grouping offers to fill this vacancy with another kind of symbol-- Russian women who have fed and befriended Neumaier, the American. The austerity of the images of Russian culture that are familiar are recontextualized with the vivaciousness of a dinner party.
In the third grouping, Neumaier photographs the patterns and textures of the Russian interior. In the center image in the top row, the wall paper pattern refers to the shapes found in the Russian orthodox church architecture, and the tapestry is a colorful weaving of a traditional folk pattern. On the left, above the clutter and decay, Neumaier photographs a framed image of Lenin. He is shown exiting the frame and the distance between the frame and the ground becomes a metaphor for the distance between the Russian populous and the government. In the picture on the right, stuffed animals are propped in a living room easy chair symbolizing a desire for leisure, play, and luxury goods. The stuffed animals, however, are tattered and faded and when they are read with the wallpaper and weaving and the image of the exiting state official the availability of goods is expressed as being just as volatile as Russia's politics and history.
Below these three images, a snapshot records Neumaier being embraced by one of the Russian photographers who hosted the exchange. Their obvious affection for one another, and the jubilance of the moment, pull our attention away from the material decay and desire and place the emphasis upon the human dynamic. This, perhaps, is where Neumaier suggests we begin to understand Russian culture.
Diane Neumaier is a Professor of Photography at Rutgers University and she lives in New York City.
Amy Hufnagel (c)1994