Latest update: January 27th, 2014
Dec. 5, 2013 – March 2, 2014
Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, Ohio
Michael Horen’s illustrations in the Artscroll Youth Megillah that I grew up thumbing through each Purim held my attention for reasons I’d now probably consider somewhat Orientalist. I was enamored with the Mongol-style footwear, with its curly, upturned toes, that the characters wore in Ahasuerus’ palace which impeccably matched their looped moustaches; with the Persian king’s deep blue-purple robe and with the lavish gold, silver and precious stones strewn throughout the banquet halls. The ancient Persia depicted in this book was decidedly Eastern and “Other.” The environment was defined by abundance, sensual overload and mystery, which was amplified by Horen’s often minimalist choreography of the palace interiors, which emphasized the foreground by collapsing the depth of the scenes.
Siona Benjamin’s Book of Esther scroll, however, illustrates the Hebrew text with a far more complex and sophisticated visual vocabulary. The scroll, which measures 15 feet long by nearly a foot wide, blends iconography from Indian and Mughal miniature paintings with the artist’s own imagery, including depicting Esther, as she often portrays herself, as a blue-skinned Jewish woman of color. (All the other figures in the scroll have skin colors that range from white to brown.)
Perhaps hearkening to medieval European manuscript traditions, where there be dragons – and other mythological and terrifying creatures – lurking in the margins of the text, Benjamin’s treatment of the space between and around the text is just as compelling as her full-page, stand-alone images. In the margins, elephants, herons, swords – sometimes dripping with blood – deer and antelope fleeing a lion, a peacock, lotus flowers, a dragon, a griffin, a cow, and a procession of camels can be viewed. It’s rare for even a square inch of the page to be taken for granted in this scroll.
Like the Artscroll Youth Megillah, Benjamin includes a visual reference to an extra-biblical tale of Haman enduring garbage dumped on his head as he leads Mordecai through the streets of Susa, but unlike the former, Benjamin’s scroll may be inappropriate for young children.
When the text refers to Haman’s 10 sons being hung on gallows, Benjamin depicts archers firing upon the decapitated heads – affixed, sort of per Deuteronomy 21, to poles atop a branch upon which the bodies hang – and alongside a passage from the Book of Esther that details how non-Jews were converting, “because the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them,” Benjamin paints a bloody suggestion of circumcision. (See also Richard McBee’s insightful observations on this element, as well as on the larger scroll, in these pages in “Siona Benjamin’s Megillas Esther,” March 25, 2011.) In the following sequence, in between the names of Haman’s 10 sons, she represents Mordecai’s nemesis hanging from a rope and simultaneously being burnt.
Benjamin’s Esther scroll also features some upturned toes, but it is a mature, very sophisticated blend of several typically soloed artistic traditions. In so doing, it represents an interesting microcosm of the exhibit in which it appears, “Sacred Voices” at the Canton Museum of Art.
Interfaith harmony, wherein religious lions sprawl peacefully alongside vulnerable lamblike colleagues, might be an appealing notion, but it doesn’t necessarily, or often, produce good fodder for an exhibit. It’s not difficult to curate an exhibit that celebrates different faiths and their collective tolerance, but doing so without descending into kitsch and activism wherein the art is merely a prop, rather than the substance, can be elusive. “Sacred Voices” features works from more than 30 artists – from as far away as Australia, Austria, and the United Kingdom – and those artists hail from three faith traditions: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. (Readers of this column will no doubt be familiar with several of the artists in the final category, including: Siona Benjamin, Tobi Kahn, Richard McBee, Elke Reva Sudin, Deborah Rolnik-Raichman, and Yona Verwer.)
The exhibit, according to a statement from guest curator Michele Waalkes which is posted on the museum website, “examines how faith can inform and inspire artists in their work, whether their work is symbolic, pictorial, or textual in nature. It further explores how present-day artwork can lead audiences to ponder God, religious themes, venerated traditions, or spiritual insights.”
The non-Jewish works in the show include references to the Kaaba in Mecca, to the crucifixion, and to Adam and Eve, and although they deserve attention in their own right, this column will, of course, focus on the Jewish works. Two works of Igal Fedida’s cleverly address the Genesis story. “The Marvelous Story of Life,” a mixed media work on metal, starts with the waste and void (tohu and vohu of Genesis 1:2) in the center of the work, caked on in a manner that somewhat evokes Jules Olitski’s later works. Around the void, Fedida writes the Hebrew text of Genesis. (Careful readers will notice that the divine names aren’t spelled out in full, i.e. “Elokim.”) Instead of having the text start on the outside of the work and spiral inward, Fedida has the biblical words emanate from the void and flow outward. Rather than descending into the void, biblical meaning emerges from the chaos.
The same can be said of Fedida’s “Metallic Void,” which includes the first verse of Genesis (“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth”) sandwiched between abstract black and white forms. In the “heaven” portion of the work, deep shadows appear to descend, storm like, upon the horizon. In the “ground” portion, white cloud-like forms, which suggest foam beneath a waterfall, seem to rise up. The biblical text hovers (like the spirit of God in Genesis 1:2) in the chasm between the heavenly and earthly domains.
Tobi Kahn’s sculpture “Shalev,” whose title indicates the Hebrew word for “quiet” but also suggests shalhevet, or “flame,” depicts a smaller figurative form beneath a large structure, which evokes Stonehenge. (The work is a smaller, bronze with patina version of the larger granite and bronze sculpture in New Harmony, Ind. See also, Richard McBee’s column “Tobi Kahn’s New Harmony” in these pages on June 17, 2009.) The smaller golden form could be a flame, or a person praying or weeping, while the larger structure has a monumental or temple feel. And the work is surely cast in a unique light installed near Faraz Khan’s “In the Name of God, Beneficent, Merciful.” A yellow arrow in the latter Khan’s painting beckons toward, and then away from, the former Khan’s sculpture.
Lastly, but certainly not least, a word on the two works in the show by the regular author of this column. McBee’s “Moses at the Jordan” could refer to several biblical episodes, but one assumes it shows the bible’s greatest prophet delivering his final talk to the Jewish people before he dies and they carry on into the Holy Land. Where many artists struggle with crowds – to try to depict each person, or not to? – McBee has a special talent (which recalls George Bellows) for teasing out just the right amount of detail while abstracting the rest of the crowd. To McBee, Moses’ audience is at once shocked (second figure from the left), in need of restraint (second from right, front row), and an amorphous and dehumanizing mass.
If the self-declared speaker with “uncircumcised lips” is intimidated by the public speaking challenge of projecting to not only the Israelites clad in ochres, blues, whites, and blacks, but also the dark shadowy forms (erev rav?) lurking between a couple of mountains (Gerizim and Ebal?), he doesn’t show it. Moses, whom McBee intentionally dresses in anachronistic Chassidic garb, spreads his arms wide, and throws his head back. Israel’s greatest prophet, to McBee, may have discovered that his people’s stiff necks are contagious.
And yet there’s something more afoot in this work. Moses is delivering his pièce de résistance and knows that he won’t be entering the Holy Land, and yet his posture suggests a dance, not unlike McBee’s works on “David Dancing.” If one of the important traits of a strong leader is projecting optimism even in the face of desperation, McBee’s Moses performs splendidly, and McBee’s treatment of Moses as both the focus of the composition as well as one element in a larger symphony anchors the narrative in a particular place – one might say, adapting “The Maltese Falcon,” that Moses looms on the edge, but ultimately is barred from what dreams are made of – in a way that text cannot accomplish alone.
McBee’s Mountain Torah reminds me, in its structure, of a Max Liebermann painting. A figure in white (Moses wearing a kittel?) ascends a golden mountain in the top left corner, as a cacophony of figures, which range from men wearing prayer shawls to angels, fill the bottom and right side of the canvas. Moses, if indeed he is receiving the Tablets of the Law at Sinai, enjoys silent commune with God, and it’s no wonder that the chaos surrounding the other figures helps breed a Golden Calf. Moses hands hang at his sides; his peers’ gesticulate wildly as Hebrew letters soar above them.
The trick, of course, is for Moses to bring those tablets, which he studied so perfectly with God, down into the chaos and to allow them to illuminate the world beneath the mountain – perhaps like the word of God emerging from the chasm between the light and shadow in Fedida’s Genesis works.
About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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