In an unexpected way Shapiro’s claustrophobic depiction of the Machane Yehuda market is a tour-de-force of genre painting. He frames the painting with a vegetable merchant on the right contrasted with the spice seller on the left. Through this scaffold flows every kind of customer imaginable, a hasid, an old lady, a beggar and a local Jerusalemite shopping for the day’s groceries. As we are drawn into the middle distance of the market we see a tray of freshly baked breads carried aloft by a burly baker. All the bustle and human activity inherent in the market is summoned forth in this vibrant image, every gesture telling its own familiar story. Even the jackets and pants for sale strung across the top reverberate with the humanity and vibrant atmosphere that characterizes this corner of Jerusalem.
For the past 13 years his work has concentrated increasingly on American Jewish life, from the New York Israel Day Parade to many joyous synagogue interiors depicting the Sabbath and holiday celebrations. Notably his series on 770, the Lubavitcher World Headquarters, has revealed an expressionistic side to Shapiro’s temperament.
Talk shows off Shapiro’s compositional skills to lead us to deeper meaning, framing the tallis-clad conversationalists with two men in black. The revealing contrasts between two bearded men in fedoras and the two men in tallis and tefillin allows one to contemplate the multiple paths to prayer open to both married and unmarried men.
On yet another level Phylacteries is a monument to an everyday mitzvah. The majestic triangular shape of the white tallis frames a pensive head crowned by his tefillin shel rosh. As he recites his prayers, eyes closed in concentration, the strength of faith is expressed in his massive arm wrapped in the black straps of his tefillin shel yad. His big beefy arm, constrained and yet strengthened by the mitzvah itself is a dramatic exposition of how Jewish men are bound and wedded to God daily. This is a simple, powerful and direct genre painting that goes to the heart of a central commandment.
Shapiro’s concern with Jewish history in the context of his own history is perhaps most movingly elucidated in The Tenth Man. This 6’ by 10’ painting realistically sums up much of recent Jewish history. Set in an imaginary downstairs beis midrash with echoes of his grandparent’s shul in Rochester, New York, the subject is emblematic of the sad reality of many failing communities, waiting for the 10th man to be able to start morning services. The genius of genre painting is that it can narrate its message through the oddest assortment of details, all of which add up to making a coherent vision.
The four men on the left are all facing the same direction following the searching gaze of the rabbi standing in the doorway. Their collective gaze leads the viewer literally out of the painting into the mysteriously black of a star-filled sky. It is as if this little congregation has found itself on the moon with no Jews in sight. Similarly the right side is one of dissonant hopelessness, each man in his own thoughts waiting for the inevitable. The shul is littered with communal disarray; mismatched pews, odd Torah covers and old tallaysim scattered here and there, a shul cat patiently awaiting a bowl of milk and finally the bookcase a jumble of worn-out volumes. The figure on the extreme right sums up the situation, glancing impatiently at his watch it is becoming clear to all that there will be no minyan today.
Genre Painting takes the details of the everyday and, when sensitively applied to subjects that the artist really cares about, can elevate the ordinary into the extraordinary. In the hands of Brian Shapiro ordinary Jewish life finds itself in the realm of the sublime.