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The Power Of Paint: Paintings By Motke Blum

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Vacillating wildly from slashing abstraction, moody evocations of Jerusalem to complex meditations on the Shoah, Motke Blum presents a conundrum. One wonders where his artistic heart lies. Could he be moved by the entire spectrum of subjects he has chosen?


“The Accusing Finger II” is a gestural abstraction – black paint on white canvas (albeit with a grayish blue stain to the left) that summons the heyday of pure Abstract Expressionism. Off center, with whites worked into the bold forms and drips, the painting is as easily about the arc of the painter’s arm, brush in hand, as it is about any kind of accusation. Many of Blum’s paintings in the 1990 book, Jerusalem: Reflection of Eternity (in collaboration with Eliane Wilson) have this expressionistic quality.


Jerusalem, the main subject, is depicted in great masses of impasto, situating the viewer outside the city looking in at a vast horizontal collection of houses and walls. The colors tend to be monochromatic, a gray-white sky above and a curiously reflective ground below. The earth becomes water-like, insubstantial. Then the artist takes us inside the city, hemmed in by a jumble of houses that encounter the towers and walls in a thick maze of perspective that shoots out at the surprised visitor.


As a collection, Blum’spaintings are about the joy and energy of moving paint around, sticky impasto animating the surface that frequently emphasizes the painterly presence of the foreground, to the detriment of a thin atmospheric sky above. While they are surely handsomely picturesque, it is surprising that the human figure is seldom found therein. Perhaps it is because the city seems alternatively icy or feverishly hot, overwhelmingly physical and stony.


Then in the middle of the book, all this expressionism changes in an austere composition that, while still devoid of figures, compels us to reassess what we thought we knew of the Holy City. A frontal eye-level view of the walls yields three rock-solid horizontal strata rising up. A double arched gate, still sealed shut, pierces the bottom wall. The ground below falls precipitously to the bottom of the painting, creating an abstract shape, echoed by the black rectangle in the lower left and the severe geometry above. The sky is possessed of a curved geometry, a vast arc that simultaneously unifies the shapes below and rises above them in a gray-blue splendor. But now, look closely and take in the fact that there is absolutely nothing on the Temple Mount. It is empty of mosque, as well as of Temple. This view of Jerusalem is able to accommodate both the Jewish repulsion at its contemporary desecration and the aching for a new Third Temple, so terribly absent now. This pain of absence reflects the world as it is, as well as the youth Blum was forced to pass through.


Motke Blum was born in Romania, from which he emigrated in the midst of the Holocaust’s fury in 1944, to the land of Israel. It is not surprising that the work he has done on the Shoah has particular power. The Holocaust works utilize different strategies to approach their subjects. The classic symbols of barbed wire, hunched figures as hunted victims, and shattered lives, are contrasted with semi-abstract verticals reaching for the sky as gestures of hope and resurrection. Hope reaches up, hatred is convulsed into a knotty ball and even Job’s suffering is twisted in a frustrating tangle of limbs, lines and paint. Here, the expressionism is not bound to paint; rather it is encased in pain.


Allegory has a particularly powerful role in a number of these works, especially a singular series of conceptual sculptures. An uneven row of tiny coffins containing white shrouds is a chilling apparition of the finality of each individual’s death, while a simple black box, titled “Six,” with three compartments containing six sets of teeth, is enough to grimly summon the death of the Six Million.


The extent of what happened is so enormous and inconceivable, that a distanced approach is often necessary. “Monster” slowly reveals a horned bull striding along the barbed-wire perimeter of a camp, looking in hungrily. The blinding light in the center can just as easily represent a floodlight, as a more natural source of illumination. What is most frightening is that the monster, ready to consume human life, is outside; a terrible reminder that the killing did not stop with the liberation of the camps.


Artists are always confounded by an internal contradiction when attempting to make art about the Holocaust. In a way, approaching the Shoah is like our approach to G-d; ineffable, inscrutable and ultimately unknowable. And yet, we are driven to understand both, and artists are always in the vanguard.


In an exhibition titled, “Man and The Beast,” held last year at the Great Neck Arts Center, the ineffable nature of brute violence is explored. A long- robed man strides toward us, pointing back at a framed image of a beast. The animal is dumb, unthinking and cumbersome and fills most of the canvas. The frame is unsubstantial, literally made of corrugated cardboard. We would not connect the beast with the Shoah, except in the context of Blum’s other works. And then there is the frantic scribble of black lines etched in the space behind the frame, threatening to spill its chaos onto the rest of the painting. The rabbinic-like figure is teaching his lesson in a precarious classroom, a mere figment of paper pasted together. He patiently explains, “Now you see, this is a beast, he is simply dumb and unfeeling.” Alas, it is never that simple. The dumb and unfeeling are dangerous. The very instability of Blum’s image, transient and yet profound, warns us that we must always be on guard; that after the Shoah, we can never relax our vigilance.


For Motke Blum, his subjects are all interwoven. The beauty and tactile reality of Jerusalem becomes the foundation upon which we can begin to probe the mysteries of the Shoah. His heart, it seems, is indeed that encompassing.


For further information, contact Motke Blum at 02-623-4002.


Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments 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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