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Amnesia In Color And Line: Inez Storer’s Identity Paintings

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Amid the rising action in Disney’s “The Lion King,” Simba – already a dashing mature lion – follows the monkey, Rafiki, through marshland, until arriving at a loch. There, he discovers a vision of his dead father, Mufasa. An exchange follows and Rafiki strikes Simba, but rather than apologizing when Simba expresses pain, Rafiki assures him that it has passed. “Yeah, but it still hurts,” insists Simba. “Oh yes, the past can hurt,” Rafiki says. “But the way I see it, you can either run from it, or learn from it.”

Inez Storer, a Santa Monica born painter, opted for the latter part of Rafiki’s advice. Storer was raised Catholic, only to learn in 1999 – well into her adult years – that she was Jewish. She somehow found a way to turn a potential identity crisis into an incredibly fertile aesthetic output.

Inez’s mother, a dancer/actress who fled the Holocaust with her Catholic husband (an aviator, who later became art director at Paramount), chose to hide both Inez’s Jewish identity and knowledge about her 29 Jewish relatives living nearby.

Upon her deathbed, Inez’s mother finally confirmed what her daughter had suspected since age 13 ? that she was Jewish. Storer explores this bizarre life story with an iconic language that just begs pigeonholing. The marks recall Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), Paul Klee (1879-1940) and 1980’s American graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88). The naiveté recalls Henri Rousseau’s (1844-1910) figures. Gravity-defying forms recall Chagall’s formal acrobatics, and the dreamy atmospheric temperature recalls Salvador Dali’s (1904-89) Surrealism.

“I am fascinated by process,” Storer muses. “I usually start my work by marking the surface of the painting, adding more and more, then peeling away the surface to come back to the first marks. It seems a metaphor of one’s own life, as the future becomes enmeshed in the past.”

This game of hide-and-seek, of merging past and future, serves to allow Storer’s form to follow the content. As the artist discovers herself, the materials themselves play copycat. Her exhibit, “Theatrical Realism” thus fits the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) in Philadelphia like a glove. The museum is undergoing a tremendous makeover to the order of a new 80,000 square foot, five story glass and stone structure, designed by James Polshek (American Museum of Natural History Rose Center for Earth and Space in Manhattan, Smithsonian Institution National Museum of the American Indian, Clinton Presidential Center). Both museum and artist are striving to adapt to new selves.

Storer’s new self did not catch her completely off guard. “I never felt comfortable with Catholicism,” she says. “In a way, I was trying to create my own history through the craft that I knew, working with collage and old letters and photographs. My work was about trying to uncover secrets.”

To uncover these secrets, Storer employs collage. She has collected so much stuff and hoarded it in her studio that she calls the selection process “going shopping.” “I am a blotter, absorbing all the different aspects of what I experience.”

Surprisingly, Storer sees something destructive in her collages, claiming that “there is usually an underlying possibility of danger ? either physical danger such as falling, drowning or unbalance, or emotional precariousness.”

“Histories” (1996) shows the artist kneeling in Catholic fashion, encircled by a variety of objects including flowers, what appear to be shoes, place settings, and finally a menorah in the middle of the foreground. Storer thus combines Catholic symbols with the Jewish, all the while negotiating a space where objects seem to float. “Histories” represents “the first time I painted a menorah. It is very autobiographical. I knew that I was Jewish, just not the details of who or what.”

Once she discovered she was Jewish, Storer had to grapple with her identity. “It’s about borderless people who are shoved from one country to another, always leaving things behind,” she says. “I felt completely dispossessed.” Split into a red zone with embedded drain-like circles and a yellow zone, “Allotment” (2000) shows a table with utensils on it, bearing the words, “We were only allowed eight spoons, knives and forks with us.” I wondered what it could mean and whether she had discovered any of the incredibly positive aspects of Judaism. “Journey” (2000) shows a green suitcase, marked “A Journey,” and also conveys displacement.

At this point, it seems rather clear that Storer’s work explores identity while navigating the world of dreams. Is an occasional menorah, titles like “Seven Days To Make the World” (2001) and a Jewish mother enough to make a Jewish painter?

In a sense, Storer does achieve a Jewish aesthetic. In her study of dislodgment and paralysis, Storer finds that, “The everyday world is often less poetic than our inner world, which can become anything that we make of it – it creates open-ended questions.” Thus, when she talks of forms passing from one reality to the next, she is using her art to form dream worlds, which present a space in which identity can find reconciliation, a safe space, where poetic, associative logic can straighten out a newfound Jewess. This space shares much with the Midrashic arena where the laws of nature and linear though often give way to the absurd. In that space, Storer can join Abraham and many others who realized their spiritual connections even very late in life.

By infusing her history, past and future, with many appropriated forms, Storer manages to paint her way out of a diasporic life and to create a safe space to grapple with her newfound identity as a Jewish woman artist. Through her work, we are witness to a miracle of modern times: the rebirth of a Jewish person.

Theatrical Realism: The Art of Inez Storer – March 14 – September 6, 2004 – National Museum of American Jewish History, Philadelphia. (215) 923-3811, http://www.nmajh.org

Forthcoming at the NMAJH: Sting Like a Maccabee: The Golden Age of the American Jewish Boxer. Opening on November 21st

Menachem Wecker edits the Arts and Culture Section of the Yeshiva University Commentator. As an artist, he has trained at the Massachusetts College of Art. Menachem may be contacted at: mwecker@gmail.com.

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.


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