Latest update: February 19th, 2012
We live in a wonderful time for Jewish art. The orthodoxy of 20th century High Modernism has given way to a chaotic but liberated postmodernism willing to try anything, even serious “ethnic” art. Jewish art can be done by anyone with a bit of gumption – just witness Anselm Kiefer’s 2010 exhibition “Next Year in Jerusalem.” And even though the commercial galleries generally still turn a blind eye, Jewish art by Jews is booming. More and more artists are coming out of the closet and admitting they have a genuine interest in Jewish subjects and ideas. This is evidenced by a least two national Jewish art groups: The Jewish Art Salon based in New York and the Jewish Art Initiative in Los Angeles. Scholar and author Matthew Baigell proclaimed last year in a lecture at the Jewish Museum that “we are in a Golden Age of Jewish Art.” And this renaissance has even penetrated Boro Park in the guise of a handful of frum artists including the tenacious Leah Ashkenazy, reviewed in these pages back in September 2001 and February 2006.
Ashkenazy’s path to making art is typical of what are often called “outsider artists.” After a lifetime of doing something else (for her raising a family and earning a Masters in Literature from Brooklyn College), then, almost by chance, in 1997, she discovered that making paintings was her passion. Not surprisingly, the subjects she draws upon are her own life – growing up in Romania during the Second World War, the Holocaust, the gnawing tragedies of our time in Israel and around the world including 9/11 and, of course, her grandchildren. Ashkenazy sees the subjects of her art as either tzuris or grandchildren. Either way, it is always deeply Jewish.
On August 9, 2001 a Palestinian terrorist blew himself up in the Sbarro Pizzeria at the corner of King George Street and Jaffa Road in Jerusalem. Fifteen Jews died including 8 children. 130 others were injured. In the devastated restaurant parents, infants, children and grandchildren died together. How could a Jewish artist, especially a grandmother, not react? Ashkenazy was one of the few who did that very year. Sbarro Pizzeria (2001) depicts a state of mind rather than a historical event. Blue lines create a three-dimensional grid that connects the viewer’s foreground with a scroll that spans the surface and the burnt sienna space beyond. In the center is a hinged object showing the time just before the bombing with a man about to enter a doorway. Above the scroll are 15 candles burning for the victims. Little figures are dotted across the scroll that reads only “Shema Yisroel.” The artist shows the painting accompanied by a text that enumerates our oppressors throughout history who wanted to exterminate us: “Today it is the nature of Ishmael who wishes to do the same. But with G-d’s help the result is always the same: Jews emerge to life and cannot be destroyed…The Torah is eternal, therefore so are the Jews.” It would seem the blue grid is the structure of Jewish life that will endure the tragedies of Jewish history. Today’s artists need to take note that contemporary Jewish history; its triumphs and tragedies as well, desperately needs our artistic reaction.
Jewish history is unfortunately rife with other examples, the Spanish Inquisition and Expulsion being a prime instance. Ashkenazy’s painting of the same name is subtitled: The Voice of the Victims (2003). She depicts an imagined stage with the curtain pulled back to reveal a mise en scene of Spanish Jewish history. There are four figures “on a golden stage” made up of dots of Jewish silver and gold. One is King Ferdinand, one is Queen Isabella and another is the despised Torquemada, Grand Inquisitor responsible for the deaths of many Jews burned at the stake and fanatical supporter of the mass expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Paradoxically the fourth figure, smaller than the others and dressed in an elaborate purple costume, is perhaps one of the prominent Jews in the Spanish court still hoping for a reprieve. The ensemble is surrounded by ghostly figures with red threads floating and connecting one another. They are the “voices of the victims,” they are the anonymous witnesses of Jewish history demanding to be heard.
Why is Ashkenazy so attracted as an artist to Jewish tragedy? My guess is that while the majority of her adult life was lived comfortably in Boro Park as a dutiful wife, mother and grandmother, her childhood was poisoned by the hatred of the Holocaust that howled around her. And as an artist, sensitive to the beauties of the world, her own childhood experiences force her to react to the sufferings of not only her own people but others too. An artistic sensitivity carries with it an awesome responsibility.
World Trade Center II(2002) internalizes the awesome tragedy of mass murder that occurred on 9/11, something every Jew cannot fail to connect with as an event that echoes in our collective past. Suddenly we are forced to imagine the twin towers as permanently part of one person’s life, literally through the eyes of one solitary individual. Her head is distorted, pushed off center and simultaneously defined by two jagged fragments of the towers. It is a blue mask of suffering and terror she must endure which is the crucial element that defines her. She is an imaginary figure and yet, in some way, representative of every New Yorker. Now New Yorkers know what it’s like to be an Israeli in the face of Arab terror or a Jew under the heartless boot of Nazi genocide.
The artist wonders where all of these memories come from and why. She rummages around her house for answers and realizes that this storehouse of memories is simply the innocent looking cupboard of family history that every Jew lives with their whole life, beginning to end. Furniture of Memory (2007) is the most innocuous piece of mental furniture we have inherited, the casual history of familial suffering, deprivation and loss that is the inheritance we all must bear. The tiny figure in a blue hat and black dress peeps into the glass doors not knowing the magnitude of what she will see.
And then there is the painting Survivor Fish (2005). Fish play a curious role in Jewish culture. Just as we love them as a Shabbos appetizer, signifying our exalted status as consumers of luxury delicacies, so too we understand that they alone survived the wrath of God in the Flood, immune to sin and its consequences, being submerged and modest, therefore hidden from the Evil Eye. Their eyes are always open, signifying their awareness that Hashem is always watching our deeds. And of course they represent the hope of the Jewish future with their persistent fecundity. All in one, this fish swimming upstream in a pink universe, littered with a handful of creatures blurred to oblivion, in some way sums up the whole prospect of Jewish history: i.e. we were chosen to have the Law, to attempt to eradicate sin as best as we could. We continue to swim alone in a sea rife with transgression. We are far from perfect and yet we doggedly swim along to fulfill our destiny. Survivor Fish we all are.
Jewish art is a delicate flower, despite its newfound growth, struggling to sustain itself in a world of silent distain. This is especially true of the work of someone like Ashkenazy who finds it hard to contemplate visual poetry without sorrow. And yet her grandchildren always beckon, as in a painting of two years ago showing them in childish pursuits in the snow. This is the universe that Leah Ashkenazy knows so very well. A future of Jewish life seen in a playful landscape of snow and cold, overseen by a bare tree and a distant house. It seems the future is constantly bound by the past that cannot be forgotten.
For further information contact: Leah Ashkenazy; 718 851 8660
Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at email@example.com
About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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