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An Imagined Conversation: Brooklyn Jewish Arts Gallery

Brooklyn Jewish Arts Gallery 

Congregation B’nai Jacob; 401 9th Street (between 6th & 7th Avenue)

Brooklyn, NY. (718) 965-9836
www.bjag.org

Artists Reception: Thursday, May 15; 6 – 10 p.m.; Sunday, May 19th from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Open by appointment until June 15, 2003.

 

 

A group show, like the one at the Brooklyn Jewish Arts Gallery opening on May 15, is notoriously difficult to view. The uniqueness of each artist’s perspective fractures the experience into unrelated segments.

Five different artists; Betzalel Cadena (he also curated the show), Shoshana Golin, Ewa Harabasz, Richard McBee (the same as this reviewer) and Alex Zwarenstein, present very different visions in over 40 works of art. Five kinds of subject matter complicated by five diverse styles can produce a visual cacophony that the rubric of “Diversity” can do little to correct.

If, on the other hand, the viewer ruthlessly segregates the visual experience for each artist, what is the sense of exhibiting them together? One way out of this dilemma is to approach the works the way many artists do, focusing on the relationships between disparate works and setting up a formal conversation between them, as if the artists were speaking to one another. Let us imagine this kind of conversation.

Betzalel Cadena’s “Purim” loudly initiates the dialogue in a thick South American accent. “All is illusion and all is mystery that is encoded in the Holy Kabbalah. My symbolic paintings are a mystery for you to unlock!” Cadena is well acquainted with mystery. His family has been in Columbia, South America since 1533, living for centuries as secret Jews under the rule of the Inquisition. When he was seven years old, he was initiated into the mysteries this faith by his grandfather, learning everything orally in a secret shul hidden in his family’s cacao factory. The symbolic mask in “Purim” covers and reveals the face beneath, simultaneously acting as a hand that obscures the girl’s features. One eye acts as a window into the soul that pierces the sky blue with a symbolic sun. Cadena’s bright tropical colors see the world on a symbolic level twice removed from reality.

The neighboring painting “Fish” by Alex Zwarenstein would protest. “Illusion may be on the surface, but it is precisely in the surface description that an ultimate truth can be unlocked. The abstract forms in the most common items, building facades, cityscapes, even freshly caught fish, reveal an elegant melody.” Zwarenstein is the consummate down-to-earth artist. Born and raised in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), he settled in England for his higher education at the Royal Academy of Art in London.

For the past 10 years, he has been a successful chronicler of lower Manhattan’s facades (represented by Eleanor Ettinger Gallery in Soho). The endless diversity of verticals, horizontals and diagonals make a rich geometry of the cast iron facades. “The inherent abstraction in all reality is the truth of appearances. Things are what they seem… we just must be guided to see them deeply enough.” Zwarenstein’s apparent realism wishes to banish mystery as much as Cadena’s symbolism embraces it. Their work challenges each other across the gallery.

Ewa Harabasz’s brooding interiors cast a note of spiritual gravity in the discussion. “The fundamental elements of dark and light, maroon and black, are more than sufficient to explore the tragic history of our times. In my black paintings, these sacred spaces are oppressive, prison-like interiors pierced by verticals of light that offer hope and freedom.” Zwarenstein
might comment that, “verticals are the scaffolding to the sublime. They are found everywhere you see a building or a human structure.” Harabasz would agree. Her fundamentally abstract work feels at home with the scaffolding and flat color of Zwarenstein’s cityscapes. But there are important differences. Her large oil paintings on wood are rarified and somber, a kind of ode to classic abstraction with the barest reference to reality. His intense oils and watercolors are firmly immersed in the here and now. This conversation about abstraction is headed in opposite directions even as it affirms a common language.

A common language seems to link the work of Shoshana Golin and Richard McBee. Both are engrossed by a Biblical world that addresses contemporary reality.

Golin, a printmaker and painter, symbolically engages the tragedy of Diaspora with “The Ark in Exile.” The Cherubim atop the Ark of the Covenant were initially created facing one another with their wings outstretched forming a kind of seat from whence G-d would speak to the
Jewish people. The Midrash comments that when the Jewish people sinned, the Cherubim turned away from one another in mournful shame. This diminutive etching imagines the Ark hidden today in a netherworld exhibiting the Cherubim in a struggle for liberation from Exile. Our daily Diaspora, whether expressed here or in the mysteriously masked participants in her Esther series, is the source of a continual lament. Golin’s work shares an affinity for real surfaces with Zwarenstein even as she occupies a symbolic realm closer to Cadena.

Another lament is echoed in Richard McBee’s painting of the “Akeidah; After.” This narrative of doubt and estrangement depicts father and son as they begin to fully realize what just transpired. Both were willing participants in a Divine drama that would have destroyed the future for both of them. And now the future is forever transformed into a contemporary reality of anxiety. We have been exposed to an unfathomable vision of G-d that makes Him even more terrifying. “The reality of G-d’s terrible sanctity, His distance and unknowableness is confronted by our continued faith.”

For Golin, rooted in family and the Orthodox community, the Diaspora is simply our contemporary reality. McBee sees this as an intractable modern dilemma representing a world deeply askew, bereft of consolation, symbolic or otherwise.

Cadena’s reassurance of symbolic truth is cast into stark relief by McBee’s narrative doubt and Golin’s symbolic lament. The moody abstractions of Harabasz probing history and sacred spaces operate as a counterpoint to the optimistic materialism of Zwarenstein. These five Jewish artists each add something to the dialogue, offering different views of reality that all touch on one another. Added together, we know something new as each is slightly altered and revealed within this imagined conversation.


Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art.
Please feel free to email him with comments at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com.

About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com


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