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Painting The Void Joshua Meyer At Hebrew College Gallery

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Tohu VaVohu
Paintings By Joshua Meyer
The Goldman Gallery At Hebrew College (Massachusetts)
(Exhibit Ran From June 6 – October 15, 2004)


Shakespeare’s King Lear – furious, embarrassed and downright stunned at his daughter Cordelia’s refusal to flatter him as her sisters did in an effort to figure prominently in his will – yells, “Nothing comes from nothing!” In doing so, he proves rusty on his reading of Genesis.

As we navigated the Creation stories on Simchas Torah, we learned that Creation occurred ex nihilo – something from nothing, order from chaos. It is beyond the scope of this essay to explore the difference between the roots yatzar, bara and ahsah, but the reader should note that all three figure prominently in the account of Creation as verbs delineating G-d’s creative role, and all three refer to artistic processes. G-d is the paradigmatic Creator, the One Who “blows breath (the soul of life) into man’s nostrils” and Who is never the mannerist, creating imitative art, but forever the Prime Mover.

Joshua Meyer, in his exhibit “Tohu vaVohu” at Hebrew College, creates his art in the spirit of imitatio Dei. Rav Soloveitchik calls this “creative imitation” – “walking in His ways”).

In his artist’s statement in the catalog, Meyer explains that, “Like the Biblical creation story, I am telling you more than ‘And then there was man.’ The whole process of making is recounted sequentially.” Meyer sees in “The stepping back and evaluating, the gradual building, the way that G-d makes things by creating in pairs,” an aesthetic process that he copies in his own creative method. He has thought the chaos through as well: “Gray is the painter’s equivalent of Tohu vaVohu. The more you mix into it, the grayer it becomes… but messy, inescapable gray refuses to be pinned down and named as a proper color.”

Quite small in size – mostly eight or twelve inches squared – the forty paintings are messy. One wants to call them expressionist, but they seem to want to be figurative. They employ a storm of thick paint, visible brush strokes (actually palette knife strokes) and semi-narrative content.

Number 16 (the paintings are all untitled) shows a man centered on the canvas whose body is painted in warm colors (reds, pinks, browns) offset by a cool background (greens, blacks, grays). The colors exist as localized shapes. The painting is executed in a seeming combination of the styles of figure and abstract form. The flurry of activity seems only surface deep; internally, the paintings are static.

Though slightly less of a narrative painting, the colors in Number 102 appear haphazard, and they prefer an isolated existence that turns the painting into a series of random marks. The marks are interesting, to be sure.

Boston-based painter Tom Barron compared the paint application to “putting on makeup or playing bingo” in the energy of the embossing, but ultimately Meyer’s paintings seem to make chaos out of order, rather than the intended alternative. They recall the works of Adolphe Monticelli (French, 1824-1886) and some of Claude Monet’s (French, 1840-1926) paintings of Saint-Lazare Station in atmospheric temperament. But, where Monet – and Monticelli to a lesser extent - builds his movement and composition from the disorderly to the orderly, Meyer seems content to allow the second law of thermodynamics full rein. He builds up a figure (the order) and then proceeds to cover it with a shell of motion and color (the chaos).

In this manner, he has managed to reverse the Creation process. Barron describes the work as “a dead bird, with occasional flutters, but not taking off. Or a bird not yet ready to fly, with no body and no wings with which to take off.” Meyer’s paintings want to fly. They beg much larger canvases and the energy proves caged in their tiny proportions.

With such a rich Biblical narrative in the Creation story, Meyer could have used this series to build chaos with paint, to literally sculpt the void and then, to tease the order out of it. But he has placed the chaos atop the canvas.

This begs the question of how he treats canvas, to begin with. If canvas itself is a void – a tabula rasa – then every mark imposes order on the emptiness. Alternatively, one may conceive of the pictorial space as a form in its own right, like a large white molecule upon which every dark is not making a mark, but erasing a white. This underlines the difference between the artist who sees his/her role as imposing him/herself on the materials, and the one who feels strongly about stepping back and allowing the materials to develop naturally.

By leaving parts of Creation unfinished so that man/woman can actively partake in the process, G-d does not force life, but leaves it open to a partnership, where Adam and Eve can be subjects and not objects. When we recognize this distinction, we can reevaluate the whole Genesis process. G-d creates light from dark (yotzer ohr, u’vorei choshech), which is in a sense placing black on white, rather than the opposite.

The question becomes one of intent – kavanah – as it does in many Jewish matters. With the proper tools and the knowledge of how and where to look, the painter can discover order. The Creation story teaches us that chaos is an act of will. Meyer chooses to impose that chaos atop his works, where the Divine model involves the opposite trajectory.



For more information on Joshua Meyer, visit his website at http://www.joshua-meyer.com/. For more information on Hebrew College, visit http://www.hebrewcollege.edu/. As usual, I acknowledge my art teacher, Tom Barron’s helpful suggestions and his company at the exhibit.

Menachem Wecker edits the Arts and Culture Section of the Yeshiva University Commentator. As an artist, he has trained at the Massachusetts College of Art. Menachem may be contacted at: mwecker@gmail.com

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About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.


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