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Archie Rand: Three Major Works

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In this exhibition Rand and curator Slavin have offered the viewer invaluable textual references to each work.   The majority of the paintings are close to eye-level along with the wall labels creating a wonderfully user-friendly installation. This allows the viewer not only to orient the image in relationship to text, but also to contrast or in some cases ignore the text allowing the image to operate quite on its own, liberated from the original inspiration.  And this is crucial. Rand’s work is so deeply Jewish because it demands, like the Torah text itself, both a pshat (literal) meaning and a drash (homiletical) meaning, and refuses to be limited by either.

The “Chapter Paintings” were an early exploration of exactly how a visual language can express and appropriate sacred text and narrative.  Rand’s earlier work in the Syrian B’nai Yosef Synagogue (1977) on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn approached similar material but was in many ways constrained by the dictates of the congregation and rabbinic supervision.  Acutely conscious of issues stemming from the second Commandment, there was no human representation.  Rand cautiously used Jewish symbols, landscape metaphors and liturgical texts to decorate all the walls of the main sanctuary, the balcony and the downstairs study halls.  The result was a one-of-a-kind totally decorated synagogue, a sacred space transformed into one of visual contemplation and a lush pictorial feast.

Ekev (1989), acrylic & mixed media on canvas, 36 x 24 by Archie Rand From “The Chapter Paintings,” courtesy the artist

Years later and now outside the synagogue walls, he was free to approach the Torah as a totally autonomous artist.  Rand produced in 1992 “Sixty Paintings from the Bible” that was a significant departure from his earlier methodology.  Here the paintings themselves imposed pertinent biblical texts on the viewer in the form of text balloons, even while depending upon an esoteric visual scaffolding.  That scaffolding was provided by a set of seventeenth century engravings, Icones Biblicae (1630) by the Christian artist Matthaeus Merian.  Rand’s appropriations are superficially similar to those of the widely reproduced Amsterdam Haggadah of 1695. The difference here is that Rand uses the images as a mere framework to “reassess the Tanach, get past the standard English translation and find the ‘punch’ of the original Hebrew.” The results are compelling.

Initially the images seem to be straightforward and literal depictions of the text.  But then one becomes aware of the enormous tension between the late Renaissance compositions, the eclectic postmodern color, and the large word balloons that virtually shout text at the viewer.  Rand demands our absolute attention by enlarging and underlining specific words to provide his very personal biblical commentary.  The prophet Isaiah pleads; “Lord, HOW LONG?” and his ancient cry becomes ours today, still in a perpetual Exile.  Likewise the prophet Daniel calmly facing a pride of lions, his hands clasped behind his back, assumes the role of the viewer in the image.  Darius demands “…Did your GOD save you from the lions?” and we acutely feel the trepidation and angst of our daily challenges.

In each of these “Sixty Paintings from the Bible” Rand utilizes underlined texts and vivid colors to shift our focus of well-known narratives in totally unexpected ways.  It is as if he went through all of Tanach and circled sixty passages as crucial and important because they represent the enormous richness of human diversity as we struggle in our lives within the Divine plan.

68:34 (1994) acrylic, enamel & marker on canvas by Archie Rand From “Psalm 68,” courtesy the artist

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


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