Virtual Exhibition: Online May 19

Margot S. Neuhaus: Of Darkness and Light 

The artistic trajectory of Margot Neuhaus began in Chicago, during her studies of psychiatric social work and her work as a psychotherapist. Within a few years, she was living in Washington D.C. with her husband and two children, deeply engaged in art making. Over the following decades, she created works in a variety of media and took part in exhibitions both in the US and internationally. 

As of 2021, she and her husband reside in Ann Arbor, Michigan, closer to their adult children. For both of them, moving from one place to another is simply part of life. Her husband grew up in a German-Jewish family in Brazil. She was born in Mexico, to parents from the Polish-Jewish communities of Krakow and Lvov, respectively. Her mother and father escaped the horrors of World War II. Most of the members of their families did not. Like millions of other Jewish people, they perished in concentration camps.   

The work of Margot Neuhaus is inseparable from these aspects of her biography and the influences of the various places she has called "home" throughout her life. Her childhood in Mexico City exposed her to a language and a culture that she felt as her own. Her world changed when her family moved to the South-Eastern part of the USA, and then again when she went to Chicago, before settling in Washington D.C. All of these places, as well as those in Europe connected to her family history have made her particularly sensitive to issues of identity: the qualities that make people feel different from one another, as well as those through which they recognize their kinship. These concerns are woven into her work, both thematically and in terms of her visual language.

One of her most pointed explorations of these ideas is the series In Memoriam, created between 2005 and 2011. Using the language of gestural abstraction, she addresses unspeakable realities: the wanton destruction of lives and the necessary act of remembrance, however painful that remembrance may be. Though these ideas inform many of her works, she has often been reluctant to deal with them explicitly-just as her parents were reluctant to speak of their trauma as survivors. With In Memoriam, she breaks that silence realizing that she has been trying to give visual form to the unspeakable feelings of her parents, which she later recognizes as her own: anguish, fear, rage, but also reconciliation and hope.

Closely related to this series is the cycle of paintings called Outcry, dated between 2016 and 2020. These are some of the largest and most ambitious of her two-dimensional works. Painted on unprimed and unstretched canvases, they call to mind gigantic scrolls or tapestries. Rather than tell stories, the artist uses powerful abstract forms to give voice to emotions that defy language.  Like In Memoriam, Outcry is about her dismay at the human capacity for cruelty. As she points out, however, these works express an existential pain that goes beyond personal history and relates to the suffering of the most vulnerable members of our community, including minorities and refugees. 

In contrast to the somber tones and dynamic brushstrokes that define these raw, gestural works, the series Light Motives, dated between 2008 and 2013, is about the feeling of hope that can sustain a person even when present as a mere glimmer of light. Created after In Memoriam, these highly refined, minimalist works on paper hint at illumination-both literally and metaphorically. Their subtlety demands that we slow down, so that we can notice barely perceptible shifts in tones, or the ways in which warm yellow and orange accents endow them with a sense of vitality.

The Light Motives find a beautiful counterpart in another cycle of works, titled of silence and dated to 2020. Though Margot S. Neuhaus does not explicate their meanings, the subtle shifts between strokes in pale cream and ochre tones against the white "nothingness" express those meanings more eloquently than words. As the Polish writer Wisława Szymborska would note at one point, at the very moment you pronounce the word "silence" you destroy it. This is also what Margot Neuhaus seems to suggest with these works, inviting us to a contemplative experience, rather than trying to convey a message.

The sculptures of Margot Neuhaus are just as experimental in approach. Her largest installations are Forest and Life Cycles, dated to 1991 ad 1982, respectively. Her principal material in both of these groups is wood-as raw as her unprimed canvases. The Forest is built from tree trunks cut into sections of varying widths and stacked on top of one another. These totem-like forms seem both artful and organic, as if the artist were simply responding to nature's own impulses. This sculptural group was shown at the Art Museum of the Americas in 1991. This dynamic exchange between shapes born from natural processes and those created by human agency feels even stronger in Life Cycles, which was exhibited first at the Earth Five environmental sculpture show in Glen Echo, Maryland, in 1982. This installation was also used for a site-specific performance incorporating poetry and dance.

In parallel with paintings and sculptures, Margot Neuhaus has always cultivated interest in photography. Some of her photographs provide glimpses at faraway places such as Indonesia or Kyrgyzstan. Many others are about the wonders of nature that can be discovered in one's immediate environment-in her case, the forests near her studio in Virginia.

These tranquil, often hazy views of nature are just one segment of her photographic oeuvre. Her ability to focus on facets of the visible world that one might easily overlook is even more emphasized in her close-ups of flowers, both those at the peak of their bloom and as they die away in front of our eyes. And just as in her paintings and works on paper, these images affirm that less is always more. They invite us to take the time to look and think, and thus, perhaps, even feel some of the artist's own sense of joy as she discovered these motifs. 

Margot Neuhaus speaks about her working process as a form of play with materials, textures, and patterns. She tries to observe and respond to the medium itself-the language of the wood grain, the surface of the paper, the fluidity of paint. As she has often noted, she feels most fortunate when the communication with the material goes beyond herself-and becomes part of larger order. In moment like that, as she also adds, something within her changes, and so does the work itself: "The door has been opened a crack and a bit more light let in."