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One Artist, Many Visions: Leonard Kogan At The Chassidic Art Institute


Chassidic Art Institute
375 Kingston Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11213; (718) 774-9149
Noon-7pm; Sunday-Thursday;
Zev Markowitz, director

 

Transmission is everything. The life’s blood of a people is dependent upon many kinds of transmission; oral, scribal, Talmudic and anecdotal. Irrespective of the modality, transmission is central to the sense of attachment and ultimately the continuity of Jewish identity. For the artist, transmission is a complex but pivotal process, one in which the artist acts as a creative
conduit between the original source and the viewer. As the artist adds meaning and context to the raw memory, a work of art is made, and creation itself expands. The paintings of Leonard Kogan currently on view at the Chassidic Art Institute show us a bit of this process.

Leonard Kogan is a young artist, born in the USSR, who immigrated to Israel with his family about 10 years ago. He has made art since he was a young child, soaking up the traditions and stories of his Jewish heritage in his home in Kishinev, Moldavia. His grandmother would relate stories about his ancestors in Belz, among other relatives that made up the rich fabric of Jewish life in the shtetl. The young artist listened carefully, allowing the brilliant images she conjured to permeate his visual consciousness. Now, years later, they have emerged in his “memory paintings” of Matzah Baker, Water Carrier, and Tinmaker. In most of these images, the figures stare out at us from the center of the canvas, creating a dream-like quality. They are literally a grandmother’s memories filtered through a young artist’s imagination.

Tinmaker (2003) creates the impression of an image captured in a snapshot uncovered from the distant past. A Jewish worker, white bearded with a typical Polish Jewish cap, stands at the ready, towering over a diminutive anvil. Posed in front of a generic wall, he could be anywhere and almost anytime in the thousand years of Polish Jewish history. For Kogan he is a very specific memory of his own grandfather, a crucial link in his own history.

Equally evocative is Cheder (2003) that depicts seven young men crowded around an open book as the leader unobtrusively leads the lesson at the right end of the table. The experience of group learning, with subtle differences between the identically clad boys gently noted in a tilt of one head and the profile of another, is captured as a memory from the shtetl past combined
with Kogan’s own learning experience in the Kishinev yeshiva. Here the transmission is embroidered with personal experience and artistic sensibility.

Kogan is the conduit for another kind of transmission, in the many paintings he has created of the alleys and courtyards of Jerusalem and Zefat. Each painting is painted on site, the artist returning day after day to capture the gentle light and colors of Israel’s most holy cities. His intimate view is rendered on the reduced scale of sixteen by twelve inches. This diminutive size
draws us into a dialogue with these finely composed sonatas of atmosphere and dream-like mood.

The transmission in these works is between the physical reality of the old city and the implied narratives of each work driven by the black garbed Chassidic figures that animate the scenes. While occasionally a scene will stand by itself, evidencing strong composition of a narrow courtyard or rear entrance, most have elusive figures that create a tension between the warm stone houses and individuals hurrying off to an unknown destination.

The Street in Zefat (2003) presents a jumble of battered buildings and hastily constructed additions that line one side of a narrow lane. On the right side a whitewashed wall towers over a robed Chassid who retreats unsteadily from our view. His cane helps him keep his balance while he carries a package in his left hand, perhaps a Gemara or a bundle of fish for dinner.

This rather amazingly unstable collection of buildings is anchored in the center by the calming
presence of the delicate trees that peek over the houses at the end of the lane. Here, in this one intimate view of the backwaters of Zefat, Kogan has summed up a litany our tireless journeys through the bewildering facets of complicated lives.

Similarly, Yard at Natsiv Street (2002) combines a powerful composition with the psychological disjuncture of an isolated figure. Both stone hewn buildings present a psychological wall that makes the painted space narrow and confining, effectively blocking the man walking. And yet he continues to stride unconcerned, trodding the foreground in an assertion of independence. The sharply delineated blue sky finds a visual echo in the blue painted shutters of both houses, bringing heaven a little closer. This painting is yet another example of how Kogan’s process of transmission is shaped by careful selections of what to include and what to exclude in the scene that he finds in Jerusalem’s old quarter. Training his gaze in a totally different direction, Kogan presents us with his only deep space landscape, Kiddush Levono (2002). This is yet a third kind of vision that transmits another aspect of visual experience. Not a memory from his family’s past, or a cityscape, rather it is a scene
experienced on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The painting explores reflection in the physical and spiritual sense. The new crescent moon relates to the main figure in the foreground only through the mediation of its reflection in the lake’s waters and white dots of the Siddurs of the men down the hill and closer to the lake. This visual journey through the painting makes us realize that no matter how intense our personal feelings might be standing before G-d’s creation at Kiddush Levanah, it must be experienced with other Jews to whom we greet, “Shalom Aleichem!” Kogan, by skillfully shaping and selecting details from a routine monthly event, has successfully transmitted the essential truth of the communal nature of Judaism.

Transmission takes many forms; a grandmother’s family stories, the artist’s interaction with the stones and people of Jerusalem and even a chance lakeside vigil. What makes the process so intriguing is that, by its very nature, it needs to be mediated by an artist, a story- teller, someone to act as a vehicle, and thereby contains the seeds of enormous creativity.

Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at www.richardmcbee.com.

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


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