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The Aesthetic Of Mishigaas: Affirming Life, Denouncing Art Tom Barron And Arthur Yanoff At Stageworks

“Abstraction Now”
The Gallery at Stageworks
41 Cross Street, Hudson, New York
Hung October 2-31, 2004

“You know, I don’t really see so well anymore,” said Tom Barron as we stood in Arthur Yanoff’s Great Barrington studio, trying to safely navigate amongst the blizzard of paper shavings that littered the floor.

” That’s why we are abstract painters,” Arthur responded nonchalantly.

I couldn’t help but chuckle. Tom wore a button down shirt, jeans, and longish silvery hair, while Arthur sported an ultramarine shirt that made his sports jacket look greenish, completing the outfit with pointy boots and a black hat. Tom and Arthur are an interesting duo; they both shudder at the mention of academics – which they affiliate with idolatry and sentimentalization – and yet they can out-theorize any critic I know.

I first met Tom in 1997 when I walked into his “Drawing And Painting The Way You Really See” class at the Brookline Arts Center with a paint brush in my sweaty little palm, quite comfortable with the notion that I was a budding Rembrandt. My friend Michael and I would later rename the course “Drawing and Painting the Way Tom Sees,” because for the life of us, we couldn’t understand what we were doing wrong. Ultimately, I found that Tom’s insistence that it is deceitful to draw the table’s fourth leg while a cloth in fact renders it invisible – is a very convincing argument.

Tom’s notion of realistic sight and his statement about his failing vision are not meant to be cute. He says that, “You must make your lack of seeing precise, and if you see precisely, you must make it blurry.” He admits that while painting a beautiful landscape, he always messed it up a bit – it didn’t feel “right” until then – and in a particularly chaotic scene, he found himself infusing it with order. This move of disrupting the orderly and making the orderly chaotic underscores a common aesthetic that Tom and Arthur share. They call it “mishigaas”.

“I am so glad you asked me that,” Arthur said when I brought mishigaas up at the end of a very painful stream of academic questions. To Arthur, it means “the fun and flexibility of being able to push something around, to not be afraid of it and to prevent the experience or the subject from suffocating you.” Arthur says, “Before there was a world, G-d created mishigaas” (tohu vavohu?).

“The thing about play is that it comes in all different sizes … I think all the great painters had that sense of play.” Mondrian, Picasso and Clem Greenberg are all players in Arthur’s mishigaas coloring book, while Tom cites Flaubert’s “La Légende de Saint Julien l’Hospitalier” and Alfred Jarry’s dramas as card carrying members of the playful club.

To Tom, mishigaas means that, “Life is porous. Everything changes in relation to everything else; it’s not hermetically sealed.” And therein lies the enemy that terrorizes the model of mishigaas: idolatry.

“Idolatry is an act of sentimentality,” Tom says. “It is not realistic. I see our work as being very realistic.” This connectedness of all things, this network of relations of forms in fact conforms to a realistic model in a way that an isolated form that stands alone fails to anticipate. Idolatry champions itself as significant and relevant in its own right, rather than part of a larger network of meaning.

Tom and Arthur have a history of this kind of rhetoric that synthesizes their Jewish identity with their art. Arthur has shown the “Western Wall Project” at Deborah Davis Fine Art; “Steerage to Ellis Island: Little Round Light” in the show “Rural Artists With Urban Sensibilities” in New Hampshire; an exhibit at the Yeshiva University Museum in 1996; and work pertaining to Isaac Luria in Santa Fe.

“Every Jewish artist is a Jew first, no matter what we say,” Arthur says. “I am not an art worshipper. That’s like idol worship to say that I am a painter who is also a Jew.”

Arthur’s grandfather, a Lubavicher Chassid, did not allow any paintings on his walls, and no photographs of him can be found. Arthur cites many halachic opinions on the matter, but “the Jewish artist who comes out of a Jewish tradition can’t help but be aware of these conflicts.”

An art history student at Harvard University, Tom dropped out his senior year to study painting with Jason Berger and his wife, Marilyn Powers. “If I loved art more than life, I thought I’d become an art historian, but I loved life more than art, so I became a painter,” Tom says.

He followed Berger and Powers to Portugal, France and Mexico on their annual four-month long trips abroad. He recalls going to Normandy and thinking that the landscape looked like a Corot, a Pissarro and a Renoir. “These painters weren’t making this up,” he says. Having thought that painters had great imaginations, he now saw that painting was about observing life, rather than imagination. “Even to this day, I don’t have an imagination,” he says.

Tom learnt figurative landscape painting from Berger and Powers. During the mid ’80s and ’90s, he exhibited gouache (opaque watercolors) landscapes that he painted in Israel (in Bet Shemesh) at galleries in Tel Aviv – Stern Gallery, Horace Richter Gallery and Tel Aviv Museum ? and Nomi Blumenthal has a painting of Tom’s hanging in her office in the Knesset.

Tom’s extensive teaching experience has included the Boston Jewish education haunt of the JCC and Maimonides School, amongst other settings. In 1987, when Tom’s paintings were evolving from figurative to abstract, a wall text at an exhibition of his work declared: “Concerned that by painting the landscape he was violating the second commandment, Barron was comforted by his family. His mother said, ‘What makes you think your paintings look like anything?’ and his father said, ‘What do you think you are trying to do, fool G-d?'”

“Why do we have to define ourselves through a European aesthetic and Hellenism?” Tom’s paintings ask, especially the painting “Horse and Soldier.” Based on a still life that Tom painted from observation, “Horse” refers to Psalm 147, “He delighteth not in the strength of the horse,” and it shows a wrestling doll – the Russian Nikolai Volkoff – a horse and a chair with two hats on it, one black and the other an official World Wrestling Federation (WWF) hat. A miniature Ten Commandments, made by Tom’s friend, the late Elle Koplow, sits on the chair, and a picture of Andre the Giant also figures prominently into the composition. Tom notes that people can draw political implications of the Russian falling off the horse, but “Everything is placed for compositional reasons, not literal ones.”

Arthur’s “Wind: 6-25-04″ shows two cloudy objects, an orange on top and a green on the bottom, with curly red lines and brush strokes dancing about the boundary where the “clouds” meet the deep blue background. It evokes sense of ruach and a certain soulfulness that arises out of the energetic, yet contemplative lines.

This painting, like Tom’s, is a different brand of painting than the kitschy, Jewish “calendar art” genre that utilizes ritual objects and narrative to convey a certain sentimentalized Jewish aesthetics. A painting of a Chassid hardly makes the painter a religious Jew, or the painting a religious experience. Arthur cites de Kooning who tried to donate a painting of his to a church, which turned him down (it is now kicking itself, to be sure).

There is something deeply religious and introspective in Tom’s and Arthur’s work. Although the viewer can’t register them as Jewish upon first sight, something Jewish creeps up in de Kooning’s and Neuman’s and Rothko’s work. If you know how and where to look for it, you will find a vocabulary that says, “My whole excitement is playing with life. Painting is not an end in itself; it is a vehicle for expressing my relationship. And that, I think, is pretty Jewish,” Tom says, claiming that his and Arthur’s work is influenced as much by Walt Disney as by Raphael. And ultimately, it is also something refreshing beyond words to talk on the phone with a knowledgeable painter like Arthur who offers me a “Zei gezunt” before he hangs up.

“Abstraction Now!” will hang at the Shelnutt Gallery at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) from November 12 until December 20, on 15th Street and Sage Avenue in Troy, New York. The gallery can be reached at (518) 276-6505.

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

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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