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Shuls On My Mind: Robert Feinland’s Paintings

Synagogue for the Arts (2000), oil on linen by Robert Feinland. Courtesy Chassidic Art Institute

Synagogue for the Arts (2000), oil on linen by Robert Feinland. Courtesy Chassidic Art Institute

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Feinland returned to the roots of his faith in the last decade as he concentrated on urban paintings of the Crown Heights neighborhood. The mikveh at Union Street and the venerable Chovevei Torah synagogue naturally figured in his gaze. Not surprisingly 770 Eastern Parkway became a major motif for Feinland to explore. After being away for so many years, his repeated visitations over the last 14 years have earned him the reputation as a well-known neighborhood artist.

Conversations Under the Moon (2011), oil on linen by Robert Feinland. Courtesy Chassidic Art Institute

Almost half of Feinland’s paintings in this exhibition contain the iconic 770, depicted from different angles and at different seasons. The largest is a diptych, Conversations Under the Moon and was completed this last year after at least 20 outdoor sessions. It was well worth all the effort.

Feinland has again bent the space in the painting, applying an arching curvilinear perspective, to provide us with a palpable sense of almost two city blocks; from 770 itself, to the yeshiva and World Headquarters and past the modernistic Jewish Children’s Museum to the row houses that stretch to the corner of Albany Avenue. He has also broadened our view to include the Eastern Parkway Pedestrian Mall lined with park benches. The sidewalk is populated with dozens of young men, many talking on cell phones, and a handful of women with strollers, all enjoying what appears to be a sunny Spring morning. One is struck by the visual tension between the left panel, whose perspective seems to “normally” recede in the distance, and the street in front of 770 that sharply curves to accommodate a more frontal view of the architectural symbol of the Lubavitch movement. It is deeply significant that Feinland’s diptych manages to simultaneously resolve the perspectival conflict and yet maintain its tension. Central to the concept of curvilinear space is the notion of simultaneously different visual points of view. Here the two-part image combines the iconic 770 – the Rebbe’s seat of power and holiness – and the street stretching away into the more mundane world of the surrounding community.

Mitzvah Tank (2011), oil on Masonite by Robert Feinland. Courtesy Chassidic Art Institute

As is not surprising in Crown Heights, the Rebbe is never far from anyone’s consciousness. Mitzvah Tank is a quiet visual essay on the ubiquitous image of Rabbi Schneerson. A parked Mitzvah Tank (which is essentially a traveling shul), seen from the back, dominates the simple view of a tree-lined Crown Heights street. Situated in what is almost exactly the center of the painting is the Rebbe’s familiar image next to “Moshiach is Coming Now!” In the simplest of ways Feinland expresses a fundamental belief of an entire community.

Rebbe’s House (2002), oil on linen by Robert Feinland. Courtesy Chassidic Art Institute

About three blocks from 770 is the Rebbe’s personal house, now sitting unused. Feinland’s intense curvilinear image seems to echo the considerable amount of the controversy and tension over the great leader’s legacy. In the sweep of the three houses shown, his house is cast into dramatic relief, seeming to tower over the viewer just as the jagged tree on the foreground curb stabs the sky above. It is a painting of sharp angles and twisted forms that are held in place by the green grass lawn and stately pine tree immediately in front of the house itself. Like many of his best paintings, it manages to combine complexity, drama and commentary in a beautiful image.

As we all know the command to “draw close to Hashem” is a fundamental religious act. Once that was originally satisfied by offering sacrifices at the Temple and now, without a Temple, we minimally fulfill it by learning Torah and daily prayer. Robert Feinland’s synagogue paintings bend space with a curvilinear consciousness, bringing close houses of Jewish faith and belief, allowing the viewer to be brought close both visually and mentally. In his way his work becomes another avenue through which we can “draw close to Hashem.”

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

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


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