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Fractured Epics: Joel Silverstein Paintings


Batya and Miriam (2012) Acrylic and collage on canvas by Joel Silverstein
Courtesy the artist

Batya and Miriam (2012) Acrylic and collage on canvas by Joel Silverstein Courtesy the artist

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The Columbia/Barnard Kraft Center for Jewish Student Life 606 West 115th Street, NYC December 4 – January 13, 2013 Opening Reception: Wdensday, December 12th: 6-8pm

Joel Silverstein is a comrade-in-arms. We share many ideas about the creation and nature of contemporary Jewish Art, as well as a commitment to the growing Jewish Art community, exemplified by the Jewish Art Salon of which we are both founding members and curators. This exhibition of his recent work at the Kraft Center for Jewish Student Life at Columbia/Barnard gives us the crucial opportunity to examine the complex richness of his artwork.

His ideas about Jewish Art are inherently radical as he expressed in 2006: “It is our assertion that Jewish thought is a precursive factor in the formation of Modernism and postmodernism… [postulating] the relationship of artistic creativity to Jewish thought [and maintaining that] Jewish thought is demonstrated to predate and augment the advent of modern aesthetics.”

His belief in “the Jewish Sublime” flies in the face of most Jewish intellectuals denial that Jewish contemporary art exists at all. Nevertheless Silverstein persists in his beliefs; writing, curating and creating works of art that reflect a vibrant synthesis of his Brooklyn Jewish upbringing, Torah narratives and postmodern visual sensibility without succumbing to a postmodern emotional emptiness.

I Saw the Miracle of the Snakes (2012) Acrylic and collage on canvas by Joel Silverstein
Courtesy the artist

At first glance his biblical work is obsessed with miracles: the miracle of the plagues, the snakes, the Golem coming alive, even the miracle of Superman who flies.

RM: What is it about the miraculous that appeals to you?

JS: In a secular way, I can’t stand the limits that contemporary cultures put on us: if the miraculous is not possible and everything is material, i.e. materialistic, then I don’t think I can live with that, I can’t accept that. So then I need to invent the miraculous, even if it doesn’t exist, but I feel it does. I feel it is the kind of thing you have to seek in order to find it. It is necessary in fighting the limits our rationalistic culture imposes.

I believe in God but I’m not a fundamentalist; my belief in something greater than myself and the imagination merge. And that’s where I really groove to Jewish texts; the Hebrew Bible, commentaries and more contemporary commentaries… i.e. the point where postmodern discourse, writing, the idea of religion and God, and the idea of the imagination all merge.

I don’t need to feel the imagination is merely the imagination. I don’t need to categorize it because the miraculous is beyond categorization. That is very important. The fact that I interpret something that happened to me in a vision with the Hebrew Bible, with a memory, a memory of my parents who have died, with something I’m looking for, with my relationship with my family, with all those things are the raw material of my artwork.

What about the “magic of time” that seems to permeate many of your works?

In the study of literary myth there is the simultaneity of time. But also in Torah study, time doesn’t exist. So they are more than similar.

You have said that seeing Ceil B. DeMille’s “Ten Commandments” as a child was a theophany. A Theophany?

This colored my visual life a lot. In Judaism there were no traditional visions of Moses and at that age that hit me hard. The DeMille Exodus narrative made a big impact on me. Charlton Heston looked like the Michelangelo sculpture. Visualizing the whole back story and the way DeMille went to Egypt to film in Egypt fleshed out the biblical in a way that brought the narrative alive.

High Priest (Arnie) (2012) Acrylic and collage on canvas by Joel Silverstein
Courtesy the artist

The surface of almost all your artwork is distressed, rough, and broken up. Why?

I have a personal love of surface. Its just my personality, an existential dread. To try to make meaning out a chaotic surface. I love early Byzantine and early Italian altarpiece painting…now so troubled after 500 years. But it is also the modern expressionist tradition I am drawn to, i.e. anxiety as a form of modernity. Additionally it expresses the existential experience of living in the now, and trying to come to some kind of idea that is centered on something greater than yourself. It also makes the work feel modern in a modernist way, not postmodern. Part of the problem of the modern world, the postmodern denial of feeling, emotional deadness and materiality is something I want my work to fight against.

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


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