Museum of Biblical Art
1865 Broadway (61st Street), NYC
www.mobia.org 212 408 1500
June 14 – September 29, 2013
The “book” is a mighty big place these days and the current exhibition at MOBIA, “As Subject and Object: Contemporary Book Artists Explore Sacred Hebrew Texts,” is no exception. Highly mobile ebooks compete with online publications and traditionally bound volumes, scrolls, accordion-style tomes and folios that present equally exciting options for contemporary artists to interact with image and text in one unifying medium. The 14 artists shown here take advantage of many of these possibilities to consider distinctly traditional Hebrew texts. The contrast between ancient hallowed texts and cutting edge contemporary mediums is revealing.
As expertly curated by Matthew Baigell, Ph.D; independent scholar & Professor Emeritus: Rutgers University and Adrianne Rubin; Associate Curator/Registrar, MOBIA, the exhibition in MOBIA’s elegant space is divided into two general categories: Subject and Object. In the works that concentrate on “Subject” the emphasis is Inside the Text; utilizing the specific narratives themselves to explore contemporary meanings, while those with an “Object” orientation investigate the creative and symbolic possibilities of the physical book in all its manifestations, frequently suppressing the specific text.
Only a handful of these artists are exclusively devoted to bookmaking itself. Most of the others are multidisciplinary artists utilizing “the book” as a medium wherever creatively necessary. Although all the artists have contributed significant works, including: Andi Arnovitz, Lynne Avadenka, Siona Benjamin, Jacob El Hanani, Ellen Frank, Archie Granot, Ellen Holtzblatt, Robert Kirschbaum, Carole P. Kunstadt, Mark Podwal, John Shorb, Robbin Ami Silverberg, Deborah Ugoretz and David Wander, I will comment only on a few to emphasize the contrasting approaches to Book Art presented here.
Professor Baigell’s catalogue essay sets the fundamental tone, stating that “…the artists…works…do not illustrate stories in traditional ways or even insist on specific religious references.” We see this immediately in two epic works by Archie Granot, the Papercut Haggadah (55 pages, 2007) and the Book of Esther (14 pages, 2009). Granot is a master paper cutter, wielding a scalpel instead of scissors to produce the most intricate multi-layered creations imaginable. The text of Book of Esther is richly framed with 14 totally different abstract decorative papercuts, leaving the actual text basically untouched by the riot of design that surrounds it. In sharp contrast the elaborate Papercut Haggadah presents an even richer and varied palette of decoration and invention, frequently invading and subsuming the haggadah text into pure design and removing it from any functional ritual use. Here the “aesthetic values [totally] dominate the textual…”
Andi Arnovitz’s three works are even more rarified manipulations of Jewish texts. In two wall hangings; All That is Left and Thoughts Are Precious, Ideas Even More So, she has taken old prayer book pages and leaves from the Gemara, carefully cut into small pieces and rolled and tied with silky threads to be then fashioned into meditations on process and a obscured scholarly memory. Vest of Prayers uses the same raw materials and finally becomes a kind of non-normative ritual object; infused with the holiness of its original sources and yet devoid of an actual Jewish ritual role. They are quintessential art objects parading a deeply pious and yet unintelligible Jewish content, metaphorically reflecting a tragic distance from the real vibrancy of contemporary Jewish prayer and learning.
In yet another aesthetic twist in which the Conceptual and purely Abstract join forces, Robert Kirschbaum’s 42 Letter Name series occupy one entire wall, deftly challenging the viewer to meditate on the multiplicity of one particular form of the Hebrew Name of God. The challenge (explicated in my JP March 25, 2010 review) is simultaneously intellectually abstract and yet rooted in both Jewish mysticism and a three-dimensional model of a nine square cube, deliciously dissected 42 times.