Minting the Unconscious
Minting the Unconscious: Tom Nussbaum’s New Work. A Review
By Peter B. Zimmermann PhDA Review
Note to the reader: “Tom Nussbaum, New Work: Sculpture, Paper Cut Outs and Drawings” is currently on view at the Hunterdon Museum in Clinton, New Jersey. The show continues through March 25th. Tom Nussbaum is an artist residing in Montclair.
Peter B. Zimmermann, PhD is a psychoanalyst in private practice in Manhattan.
The simple, white room with massive, exposed wood beams in the old mill in Clinton, NJ, which houses the Hunterdon Museum, is the perfect space to show Tom Nussbaum's work. This beautifully curated show of his recent work includes sculptures, color paper cut outs and pencil drawings. In the work on display, Nussbaum performs a psychoanalysis of his emotional world in the language of the artist. What he uncovers is not neurosis or narcissistic self-indulgence; rather, what his work expresses are the themes of a man at the midpoint of life: what it means to be a man, a son of a father who has died, a father, a husband, and an artist at the beginning of the 21st century.
Upon entering the room, the viewer is first met with a small sculpture of “little man”, standing on the floor, ten inches tall, perched patiently, quietly, hands by his side, looking up at the world. Looking up at the viewer, he says without words: you and I, we know each other; come into my world, my experience of my world, and see if you recognize yourself in me.
Nussbaum, the artist, does not so much look up, as he looks down into, his inner world. He mints his unconscious for the themes that occupy and preoccupy him. This is the world that is displayed for examination in the show. On first impression, this is a friendly world, a cheery, colorful, playful world, and we are invited into it to explore, to play.
Throughout the show Nussbaum plays with size and proportions. It is not the physical size of objects that matters, but their psychological size, the psychic space they assume in us. Thus we find little man rolled up in a fetal position, quite cozily in fact, in the ear of a large head of a man, lying on its side. What is he hearing? What is he listening for? We put our ear to a person's face to see if he is still breathing. On the other hand, to feel heard, is to feel alive. We long to feel heard. We feel cradled when we feel heard.
The emotional world that Nussbaum displays is revealed as increasingly more complex, textured with layers of meaning: Little man's head in the beak of a bird, on its side, like a grain, about to be cracked. And then there is little man, though bigger now, carrying a hefty burlap bag on his shoulders, straining under the weight, but holding up. On closer examination, the heavy bag reveals the contours of a large head, the head of a giant of sorts: the parental figures of our childhood who we all carry with us, both as baggage that may burden us, and as connections to our past that give us weight, substance, direction, orientation, a sense of who we are. In either case, these figures determine how we experience the world and ourselves in it.
Nussbaum’s works on paper show more of his themes. The runner on the run; he comes from somewhere and he runs to somewhere, but where is not clear; what matters, is the motion, contained. Or the little man balancing several large interlocking balls on his head, five times his size. Not that they appear heavy, but rather the skill is in juggling them all. And he does it, because there they are, on his head, and he seems to have neither a choice nor a complaint. A man has a destiny to fulfill, a life to balance, or simply a job to do. Then there is the image in reverse: Little man, wizard like, nimble and quick-footed on top of several interlocking wheels of different size: either they are turning and he has to dance as fast as he can to stay up and not lose his balance, or he has to keep them going, keep them in motion with his feet in order to keep them from falling apart: in either case it is no small accomplishment. The wheels must keep turning, the show must go on, and he keeps it going with agile flair, with wit, with determination, with guile. Are we on top of the world, performing miraculous balancing acts or are we carrying the world on top of our heads, at all times juggling several balls all at once? Perhaps both holds true at the same time, and it is simply a matter of our perspective at a given moment.
Nussbaum’s work raises these questions in a playful way. He invites us into his introspections and shares the results of his labor with us. While we have been immersed in the artist's inner world we have come face to face with existential themes and concerns in ourselves, and yet we come away from this exhibit/journey revitalized, and invigorated, ready to keep on engaging in this precarious balancing act called life, knowing that we are not alone.