Paintings from Midrash by Brian Shapir0
Chassidic Art Institute
November 6 – December 8
375 Kingston Avenue, Brooklyn (718) 774-9149
Noon – 7pm; Sunday – Thursday
The midrashic world is a dangerous place to inhabit. It delves into our sacred texts to fathom their deeper meanings, solve vexing textual and conceptual problems and, finally, make sense of the holy words in contemporary terms. Midrash is passionate and deeply creative, like the current midrashic paintings of Brian Shapiro.
Shapiro is no stranger to Jewish themes; his enormous canvas, Generations, a tour-de-force of Jewish history, was reviewed in this column in August 2010. Since then, the artist has become increasingly mesmerized by biblical subjects seen through a midrashic lens. The lure of midrashic interpretation satisfies the need to know the details and specifics of many biblical narratives, i.e. the precise textures of how and why events unfolded in the devastatingly spare Torah text. For a figurative artist like Shapiro, the multitude of midrashic exposition is a reassuring link with a tangible reality to anchor the text in this world.
Jacob and the Angel purports to depict the epic struggle between Jacob and a mysterious being who is either an emissary of God or the protecting angel of Jacob’s dangerous brother, Esav. Based on a midrash in Beraishes Rabbah the artist shows the angel holding Jacob’s hand over a roaring fire. While the midrash expounds that the angel stuck his hand into the earth and a volcano of flames erupted threatening Jacob, the painting doesn’t simply illustrate that event. Rather, if we observe closely, both figures are indeed struggling not only between themselves, but are significantly repulsed by some unseen force off the left edge of the painting. In fact, both angel and Jacob are aghast at what they perceive. Indeed it is the mutual recognition that this primeval sibling struggle will reverberate throughout the millennia. It seals the fate of soon to be named Yisrael and the nation who will descend from him with a terrible and bloody future.
The theme of sibling rivalry and conflict is of course central to many Biblical narratives, most especially that of Joseph and his brothers. Shapiro’s Joseph and Brothersis terrifyingly on target. The brothers, all turbaned except one, appear to be engaged in what in contemporary Israel would be called a “lynch.” Most of the eleven have staffs that are used to threaten, push and drive the helpless half-naked Joseph off the edge of a precipice. What is extraordinary is the ferocious compact energy of brotherly hatred revealed in bright daytime clarity. A lone bareheaded brother is at the extreme left, looking away in concern as he holds Joseph’s many-colored cloak. In this one bald figure is all the cunning and unacknowledged guilt of fratricide. This figure represents none other than Reuven who pleaded with the rest not to murder Joseph and yet finally fashioned the vicious lie to his father with Joseph’s bloodied coat. Here the artist has, by thinking midrashically, actually summoned the literal biblical text most evocatively.
While much ancient midrash traditionally has the textual authority of the oral tradition transmitted by the Sages, it also must be seen in the dual contexts of the original textual “problem” and actual date the collections were finally redacted. Nonetheless, regardless of date, all Torah commentary remains a vibrant source of contemporary understanding of sacred text. Even a contemporary artist, passionate about the complexities of Torah narrative, can offer unique insights into the stories our tradition celebrates. Sea of Reeds is an example of Shapiro’s contribution to midrashic exposition. Significantly, in this exhibition the artist has explicitly offered his midrashic sources and explanations for each of the paintings.