Exhibition by Michael Gleizer
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.
Though I remember the painting well, I had forgotten who painted it until I saw a very similar piece called “The Arena” (1991) in a 1993 catalog of Gleizer’s work by Zev Markowitz, director of the Chassidic Art Institute (CHAI). It turns out that the painting I remembered from YUM was called “Circus” (1991), and both were part of a larger series called “Levitation.” The body of works that Gleizer is currently showing at CHAI is quite different from the 1991 pieces, but the levitation theme remains. Of the 19 pieces in the show, 18 are 16-inches squared, styled works dated 2005 that show figures floating through the air with titles like “Learning,” “Sabbath,” “Farbrengen,” “Wedding,” and “Hachnoses Sefer Torah.” The 19th painting is titled “770” (1997, 48 inches squared) and represents congregants praying with a Torah in far bolder color than the other works in the show.
“Hanukah.” 2005. Michael Gleizer: Oil on board. 16 x 16. Photo: Richard McBee
“Hanukah” (2005) is a timely inclusion in the show. In the painting, a man in a black hat and a coat and a young boy light candles in front of a large window. But this is anything but a conventional portrait of Jews lighting candles. The man and the boy seem to stand on firm ground (the viewer can just make out their shadows suggesting a light source from above), but the little bit of floor, the figures, and the window float through the air − which is presented as a mixture of soft blues, greens, purples, yellows, and grays. Specks of white paint suggest stars, and in the bottom left corner of the painting, Gleizer represents a village with about 10 houses. The same white specks that represent stars above become lights in the windows of the houses (perhaps also candles lit for Hanukah), linking the light of the holiday with the celestial bodies.
“Night.” 2005. Michael Gleizer: Oil on board. 16 x 16. Photo: Richard McBee
“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.
In their suspension of the laws of gravity, “Hanukah” and “Night” − and indeed most of the works in the show − raise important questions. Are the figures floating simply for stylistic reasons of calling attention to themselves, or are they conversing with the divine? Are they caught between heaven and earth with the potential to rise or fall depending on their deeds, or does Gleizer mean to romanticize the shtetl and suggest that it exists only in our dreams and collective memory? It is hard not to compare the soaring figures to Chagall’s flying people, though Gleizer addresses the happier sides of shtetl life while Chagall often portrays its nightmares.
“Tashlich.” 2005. Michael Gleizer: Oil on board. 16 x 16. Photo: Richard McBee
Gleizer’s “Tashlich” (2005) slightly breaks the mold. Eight men and two boys stand on one side of a river, while an amorphous crowd stands on the other side, all wearing hats and kapotas and swaying as they recite the prayer of symbolically casting their sins into the water. In “Tashlich,” perhaps due to the importance of nature in the symbolic ritual, Gleizer surrounds the villages with trees, and plants the houses, trees, and figures on terra firma rather than having them suspended in the air.
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.
“770.” 1997. Michael Gleizer: Oil on canvas. 48 x 48. Photo: Richard McBee
Other works like “770” (1997) contain clear horizon lines and more straightforward efforts to map out space. But from seeing the body of work on exhibit at CHAI, it is clear that Gleizer is up to something very interesting with his delineation of heavenly and earthly domains. Chassidic texts talk about how performance of good deeds leads to the creation of angels that testify to those mitzvot, and perhaps Gleizer means to show how people can literally become elevated and suspended in the air when they welcome the Shabbat, celebrate a new Torah, dance at a wedding, or bless the new moon. Many of Gleizer’s pieces strongly emphasize the moon, so that even as the viewer is very conscious of how high up the figures have soared, the moon still looms higher yet, which leaves the figures with more and more to aspire to.
The 19th-century French painter, political activist, and caricaturist Honoré Daumier published a brilliant lithograph in the February 28, 1844; issue of the periodical Le Charivari called “O Lune! … inspire-moi ce soir quelque petite pensée,” or “O moon! … Inspire me tonight with some thoughts…” (Translation from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art). In the print, Daumier shows a man sitting in his nightgown nervously biting his fingers and he looks up through an open window at the full moon. The work gives the viewer no indication of what plagues the man’s mind, but it is clear that it is more than he can bear.
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 email@example.com. He is a painter and writer, and resides in Washington, D.C.