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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

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.

What about the figurative sublime and the hybridized impure sublime you have written about?

My work begins with the reality and experiences of my personal life. Brighton Beach Exodus started with my vision of Moses on the beach at Brighton. From my childhood, that is a view I have seen thousands of times and from the very beginning had the image of Moses slaying the Egyptian at Brighton. Everything else grew out of that. This was clearly a Torah narrative placed in the modern world, my modern world; the ruined amusement rides, toys pumped up and my friends pumped up as models in the narrative…I start out with an experience I have and then take it to a more metaphysical place.

Much of Silverstein’s work is concerned with the idea of “the sublime.” He comments: “The tradition of the sublime as articulated by Emmanuel Kant relates to feelings of awe and transcendentalism in confronting nature and creation. The subject struggles with an all too human inability to express the infinite through mere language. Think of a viewer before a thunderstorm or a vast mountain gorge.…I am evoking a figurative sublime, but one very aware of its abstract precedents. The concept of the sublime has again becomes relevant for us, if only because it presents an aesthetic way to counter the materialism and definitions of our own time. I am proposing a hybridized impure sublime using cultural representations of all sorts; things observed and imagined. Images can be drawn from life or popular culture with no one representation seen as superior, more truthful or more relevant, much like the indeterminacy of postmodern thought. A movie still of Charlton Heston’s image can represent Moses, but so can a friend from my youth, a toy, an art historical reference or my own self-portrait. My goal is the depiction of a metaphysical reality; one where the boundaries of science, materialism and contemporary culture hold sway, but just barely. A fixed iconography gives way to a fluid one, recalling the old Second Commandment battles over images and image making in all the great monotheistic religions.”

Silverstein’s work needs to be understood as the raucous collision between the deeply personal and the grandly Biblical, grafting elements with a breathtaking aesthetic abandon that is determined to change the world and how we look at it. He is a Jewish artist for our times.

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

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