Through January 15, 2009
The Chassidic Art Institute
375 Kingston Ave, Brooklyn, New York
Michael Gleizer’s work is unfortunately all too easy to pigeonhole. You are not likely to ever encounter it in the Whitney Biennial, and you had better not expect to see it selling for hundreds of millions alongside Damien Hirst’s works at auction. But just because Gleizer’s paintings present a nostalgic look at the simple, sad, and beautiful life of the shtetl rather than postmodern meditations on paralysis and alienation that blink and incorporate bizarre materials, does not mean that they are not important. In fact, they make a lot of sense at the Chassidic Art Institute in Crown Heights − itself an institution that is unfairly dismissed by too many in the so-called art establishment.
First, an anecdote is in order. Several years ago, when I was a literature student at Yeshiva University, I co-taught with a wonderful Argentinean artist Dina Bursztyn in a program called, “Seeing in Living Color. SILC,” a product of the Yeshiva University Museum’s education department. We taught bilingual students at PS 173 to enrich their language skills through drawing, painting, mask making, sculpture, basic printmaking, and clay work. There was also a gallery-viewing component, in which Dina and I showed works from YUM’s collection to the students and encouraged them to discuss the works.
One piece that especially held our students’ attention was a large eight-foot square work (split into nine equal-sized canvases) with lots of primary colors and transparent washes, which depicted a circus populated by Chassidim. Characters that could have been lifted from Sholom Aleichem arranged human pyramids, carried benches on their heads, walked a tight rope carrying water pails and umbrellas, and rode unicycles and horse-drawn wagons.
“Night” (2005) also shows a floating man, this time a milkman pulling a wagon with his wares. The man, having put down his wagon to rest, stands with his hands on his hips as he floats in the middle of the painting, sandwiched between a village in the bottom left corner and another one in the top right corner. Like “Hanukah,” Gleizer populates the sky with cool colors and with stars and lights in the house windows. The man looks upwards at the higher village − perhaps in prayer.
The work is mostly naturalistic in its perspective, though in the bottom left corner the village is far too small unless the figures are giants. In fact, the entire composition evokes the second day of creation, in which G-d separated the waters. The blue and white domain above is surely sky, but the area that zigzags through the middle of the painting ambiguously plays the roles of water to the praying figures and sky to the small village below. The figures can be said to be semi-suspended, or more exactly, it is impossible to determine whether the hills they stand on are attached to the earth.
Gleizer’s figures, conversely, celebrate the moon as a creation of G-d, and see it as an opportunity to praise G-d. Surely the milkmen and the brides and grooms and Chassidim in Gleizer’s works had their own troubles, but Gleizer chooses to show their joy and worship rather than their pains. Some will surely dismiss this vision as uninteresting, sappy genre painting. But when seen in the proper context like the Chassidic Art Institute, it is clear that the Chassidim are so joyful not because pretty colors sell well, but because Gleizer has infused the works with such a clear Jewish identity.
Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is a painter and writer, and resides in Washington, D.C.
About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at email@example.com.
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