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