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The Siddur As Coloring Book – Archie Rand’s ‘The Eighteen’ At The Jewish Museum Of Maryland

The Eighteen: Blessings from The Heart of Jewish Worship
Showing through August 28th, 2005
The Jewish Museum
15 Lloyd Street, Baltimore
http://jewishmuseummd.org/


The aesthetic buzzards have been following him disappointed for years. He was easy to pick out trudging through uncharted territory, alone. Everyone else heeded the “Beware, Herein Lies Jewish Art” signs, and the warnings, “Artists Interested in Loving Publics Need Not Apply,” so to the buzzards it was a no-brainer: Archie Rand would surely fall, and they wanted to be there to enjoy his demise. But not only did he not fall prey to anonymity and irrelevance, he has laid out a clearly demarcated path for others to follow. In his own way, he has effectively revolutionized the way the rest of us view Jewish art, heretofore an endangered species until Rand nurtured and raised it to fruition.

Rand’s new exhibit “The Eighteen: Blessings from the Heart of Jewish Worship” at the Jewish Museum of Maryland features a series of 18 paintings exploring the silent prayer, the Amidah. The series reminds me of Roald Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant (BFG), who religiously covers his nightly beat of children’s dream distribution with a trumpet, a good sense of time and a high-speed gallop that would put any BMW to shame. Quite typically, Dahl explores the bizarre notion of containing a personal dream experience in a jar.

If Dahl lent the giant a skullcap and sent him galloping to make a Minyan (he already has the Long Black Cloak), one wonders what sorts of thoughts and supplications could the BFG appropriate with his trumpet: what would they look like sitting in his jars? Well, they would look something like Archie Rand’s work. The paintings can only be described as the product of putting art and Judaism into a blender and hitting “high,” and it takes a singular man with a top screwed on properly to ensure that the experiment does not simply make a mess of it all.

Technically, the series includes what is effectively the 19th blessing (“And as to the Gossipers”), and it opts to exclude the final blessing of the prayer, but Rand manages to survey the entire prayer nonetheless. Where the Amidah is a private and a public enterprise-praying individuals recite it quietly, the leader repeats it aloud-the paintings are very quiet and shy initially, but Rand is also the service leader, and his voice booms loudly and clearly in his writings in the catalog that explain the work.

Rand has a long history of this sort of gutsy art. His “The Nineteen Diaspora Paintings” – which told an operatic story that mapped Biblical stories over a comic book, “pulp” template, all arranged within the Amidah apparatus – hung at Hebrew Union College (October, 2004 – January, 2005), and “Archie Rand: Iconoclast” – which contained his piece based on Nachmanides’ letter to his son, and his “Sixty Paintings from the Bible,” amongst other pieces – hung at the Yeshiva University Museum (February – August, 2004). In her preface in the catalog of “The Nineteen,” curator Laura Kruger wrote, “Archie Rand has never been timid. His most recent workdemands our reconsideration of Jewish scripture and its relevance to our moral decisions.”

Kruger is quite right in this estimation of the oomph and the immediacy in the work, and her comparison of Rand and 19th Century French cartoonist Honore Daumier, though risky is quite telling in some ways: both artists employ a very bold, in-your-face style that is very accessible visually, while carrying enormous weight in its social criticism at the same time. To Rand’s credit, his work insists upon comparison to the great masters’ work, and though the comparisons feel uncomfortable and possibly even sacrilegious, somehow they are imperative nonetheless.

Simply reading this article will not do, as far as understanding Rand’s work goes. For works that rely so heavily on palette (the gallery walls are deep blue, and the paintings literally look as if they were on fire with bright, dancing colors), black and white reproductions simply will not arrive at an honest representation, and the catalog is stuffed with explanations that range from the Hassidic to the Kabbalistic to the philosophical to the simply personal, to attempt to make the paintings more accessible. I will not regurgitate the explanations of each piece, because viewers must read the catalog, and a cursory characterization of the texts will not do it justice. Also, the paintings are intended to be inaccessible and mysterious.

My favorite painting of the series, “2: You, Ado-shem, are mighty forever, etc.” has a yellow ochre feel about it. The surface is particular sculptural, and much of the paint sits on top of the canvas in a highly textured way that plants flowers and birds in the paint. The words of the second blessing, which underscores G-d’s power and role as reviver of the dead, appear in red in the middle of the larger circular motif. Two blue forms – a darker one atop the painting and a tint towards the bottom-slice through the composition suggesting rivers in a murky, yellow-brown desert. The central yellow ball cannot help but suggest a sun, and the fractured forms around it recall explosions or fireworks. What does this all mean with the words of the second blessing of The Eighteen scrawled across it? Does the image dictate the second blessing sufficiently on its own, and if so why does it need the words? And if it needs the words to identify it, what relation, if any, does the image have vis-à-vis the text?

Clearly, the flowers and birds suggest a feeling of life, and coupled with the circular motif, the work suggests a cyclic life pattern that includes death. This rotation follows the text that casts G-d as the reviver of the dead. Viewers can find such signs in every painting, but somehow the paintings are about the space around the literal motifs. There is an embarrassment or at least a cumbersome feel to the literal objects, as if Rand needed them for some compositional reason but wished that he could keep the paintings entirely abstract. And the greatest strength of “The Eighteen” is its abstraction; the abstract planes represent the areas where the interpretation – kavanah – resides.

This abstraction-as-kavanah reflects Rand’s Jewishness (too much Jewishness, says Norman Kleeblatt) and postmodern identity as a painter: “My insistence that they are Jewish makes them Jewish, which is a far distance from begging for them to be Jewish.” And he has needed much insisting, caught as he is between a Jewish audience that shuns his secularness and a secular audience that shuns his Jewishness. Like the Jews caught between the Egyptian missiles and the threatening waves of the Sea of Reeds, he needs a miracle, and the miracle comes through his paintings, which “compensate for the inability of English to get at the Hebrew textThese paintings are for people who feel Jewish, and I am not kidding,” Rand says.

And Rand ultimately makes his own Siddur, providing an aesthetic translation that does approach the Hebrew text. He is such a successful translator, because he knows to keep a balance between objects and a more transcendent, abstract realm. And in a sense, where the Baroque painters often seemed fixated on painting portraits of cherubs and other lofty spiritual beings, Rand opts for the less idolatrous design problem: sitting Kavanah down as a model and painting her portrait.


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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