Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek
55 East Kings Highway, Chester, Connecticut
Two of Alan Falk’s biblical paintings immediately assault us aesthetically and thematically. Isaac Blessing Jacob (2009) and The Cry of Esau (2010) document the famous stolen blessing of Beraishis 27 and its consequences. The ancient Isaac is clad in a white nightshirt, raising his bony hands in blessing over his two sons. In one, Jacob has donned a curly-haired brown Afro deceitfully offering his blind father food, while in the other, Isaac’s trembling hands attempt to bless the hysterical Esau at his feet. The cartoonish figures are caught in a melodrama of high-keyed color and exaggerated gesture that casts the biblical tale into an unfamiliar and strange realm.
Alan Falk’s long and fruitful career has taken a complex course over the past 55 years in his search for the best way to comment on the endlessly fascinating human condition. His earlier paintings, probing the complexities of human interactions, were engaged with literal descriptions of various scenes of figures set alongside suburban swimming pools and bucolic seasides. Over time he became dissatisfied with the beautiful technique he developed because he felt it got in the way of the essence of what he was trying to express. Much experimentation ensued, in many different mediums, until over the last ten years, he developed a unique approach utilizing the Biblical narrative to fully explore not only the complexities of the human condition, but also the ramifications of spirituality implicit in a Jewish life.
The Binding of Isaac (2002) showcases Falk’s new style of simple bright color with pronounced outlines to present the startling image of the heavenly angel being simply another aspect of Abraham’s personality halting the sacrifice. The artist’s take on this archetypical story is not merely psychological; it also posits that it is the Divine aspect of Abraham who acts, pointing to the Heavens for authority and confirmation.
More recently his interpretation of the Four Passover Sons (2009) brings them firmly into contemporary Jewish society. The Wise Son is seen as a Holocaust survivor, his own parents who perished in the Old Country still present on the wall behind him. His wisdom is founded in the historical experience of the Jewish people. The Evil Son is a flashy businessman; expensive suit, cufflinks and big watch testifying to his wealth as much as the picture of the racehorse behind him. Noteworthy is the yellow Divine glow emanating from his face and hands, distorted by his garish expressions of success. The Simple Son is bound up in popular culture; a pin-up competes with a baseball picture and his New York Yankee yarmulke. He wants to participate but can only see the Seder through the icons of his time. Finally the Son Who Doesn’t Know How to Ask is at a loss, aimlessly typing on his computer, lost in a pixel maze of digital dots. It’s clear that we must address the Seder to him to help him find his moorings and bring him back to Jewish life.
The Four Passover Sons (2009),
oil on canvas by Alan Falk (Courtesy the artist)
Returning to the paintings we first encountered, we can understand Falk’s use of contemporary dress and comic book inspired sequential scenes to explore Isaac’s dilemma. In the first painting the intense red behind Isaac is his thought of Esau slaughtering his favorite meal while in the second painting the same intense red of Esau expresses not only his violent nature but also his devotion to his father. Isaac in these paintings seems to be caught in a surreal universe of deception and betrayal that he has no power over. His shaking hands and eyes rolled heavenward are perhaps the only rational response, far from a cartoonish fantasy. While we normally consider this episode as the stolen blessing, Falk’s paintings dramatically reorient us to understand that this is actually Isaac’s last test.
True to his postmodern modality, Falk frequently misdirects the viewer, establishing the real point of his narrative investigations at the margins of the image. In Abraham and the Strangers (Hagar & Ishmael) (2005) the three strangers establish a rhythm of three figures clad in spooky white robes as Abraham dutifully washes their feet. While at first glance it is a celebration of Abraham’s kindness and welcoming nature, the painting is actually delving into the all-important sub-plot that the stranger’s arrival will explode. In the lower left the skeptical profile of Sarah watches the scene. Her gaze extends through the visitors to the figures of Ishmael and Hagar in contemporary Palestinian dress. With perfect biblical hindsight we can well understand that this episode will effectively eject Hagar and Ishmael from Abraham’s family, thereby turning the stranger’s arrival to the beginning of their exile and alienation from the descendants of Abraham. Our contemporary conflict with the Arabs began at that moment.
Abraham and the Strangers (Hagar & Ishmael) (2005),
watercolor by Alan Falk (Courtesy the artist)
Given a bit of patience and the understanding that Falk sees a direct connection between the Biblical narrative and the contemporary world, his work seems less strange and more engaged with the heart of our core narratives. The Scapegoat Again (The Azazel) (2009) hones in on a major motif in his explorations: Consequences. Central to the Yom Kippur service is sending the scapegoat to Azazel. The death of this goat, combined with our proper repentance, will expiate our sins. Of course we no longer have this Temple-based option, and must depend on the three-fold formula of Repentance, Prayer and Charity to remove the terrible decree against us as Yom Kippur draws to a close. But the scapegoat lingers in our memory and Falk presents him close-up. He stares at us with unnerving goat-eyes, the red string that condemned him in the first place still attached to his horns. And yet he is trapped in barbed wire behind his neck and in his mouth. For Falk it is the barbed wire of the Holocaust that traps our ancient expiation of sin. Could the murder of millions somehow expiate our sins? What are the consequences of their martyrdom that portend for us, for our sins? Because of them and what they suffered, must we lead better Jewish lives?
The Scapegoat Again (The Azazel) (2009),
watercolor by Alan Falk (Courtesy the artist)
An artist’s job is to ask questions, questions that will startle and gnaw at our complacency. That is the role in Falk’s art, a kind of anti-aesthetic drawn from comics, popular film and anime illustration. He is looking to highjack our sensibilities into asking uncomfortable questions about our Jewish lives. Our discomfort is a measure of his success that is much to our benefit.
Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at email@example.com