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October 6, 2015 / 23 Tishri, 5776
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Toby Cohen’s Hovering Hassidim

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Toby Cohen: Cherubim & Angels

Through July 8, 2010

Engel Gallery

26 Gordon St., Tel Aviv, Israel



One of my favorite characters in all of literature is the senile patriarch José Arcadio Buendía, of Gabriel García Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, who, before getting tied to a tree for his own protection, decides he would like to capture God in a daguerreotype. José’s ultimately unsuccessful design solution is to jump out from around a corner hoping to catch the deity unawares. This association of the divine and the photographic image is perhaps why some Chassidic rebbes opposed photography in its early days and certain practicing Muslims today, who espouse an aniconistic interpretation of Islam, scowl for their passport or license portraits to show their disapproval of the medium.


The chassidim in Toby Cohen’s photographs, though arguably unaware of the presence of the camera, seem to have no objections to the voyeuristic artist. In an interview with the Jerusalem Post’s Carl Hoffman (“Trying to shoot God,” May 7, 2010), Cohen, British-born, Tel Aviv- and London-based, said his art has a bit of the hunt for the divine in it. As Cohen tells it, a man he met in Israel asked him why he did not try to take God’s portrait if he was such a good photographer.


Evidently, the question made an impact. “[A]fter this encounter, I began to think about trying to find a way to capture people connecting to God,” Cohen told the Jerusalem Post. “So, through Breslav hassidism and hassidic meditation, I found people who were at the closest point to God that I had ever seen. They were meditating in nature. And that was the connection between the people, the land and God.”



Toby Cohen. “Flying Sukkah.” All images courtesy of Engel Gallery.


When I first saw digital images of Cohen’s work, I was sure there was some photoshopping involved. Take “Flying Sukkah,” a panoramic crepuscular view of a suspended sukkah hovering over a mountain. Yellow flowers, rocks, brush and grass populate the foreground, while rolling hills and mountains are visible on the horizon, softened by the purple and ochre rays of the setting (or rising) sun. A stepladder leads up to the sukkah, which is occupied by three figures, two wearing prayer shawls. One figure wearing a coat and a black hat stands at the bottom of the ladder and points up at a figure crouching in the sukkah, holding one end of a string with which he engages in a tug-of-war with another figure on the ground.


Is the one figure trying to pull the other heavenward? Is the grounded figure trying to drag the other earthward? Both? Perhaps the gesture, half-prayer half-shrug, of the other figure, clad in a prayer shawl that makes him look like an angel beating its wings, best captures the ambiguity of the image.


Toby Cohen. “Fiddler on the Roof.”


Anyone who studies religious art for years, as I have, learns early on to be suspicious of contemporary iterations of surrealism or magic realism. It’s all too easy for an artist to create kitsch with melting Kiddush cups or hovering, cartoony angels and billowing Israeli flags. Tallitot and sukkot and a variety of other Jewish ritual objects are so iconic that I have seen many a Jewish artist succeed despite (and perhaps precisely due to) using recognizable Jewish symbols to obscure poor underlying visual structure.


I’m not entirely convinced Cohen avoids this pitfall (though to be fair I’m reviewing his art from 6,000 miles away), but I was very interested to learn that Photoshop is less of his process than I had originally anticipated. Cohen told the Jerusalem Post he conceived of the flying sukkah one Sukkot at his friend, David Cohen’s (no relation) sukkah. The two were discussing the laws of the sukkah (Can it be on a camel? A boat? Etc.), and Cohen decided he wanted to photograph a flying sukkah. As David Cohen tells it, every artist Cohen discussed the project with asked him why he didn’t just Photoshop the suspended structure. (The police even got involved in a bad way). But Cohen insisted he wanted the image to look authentic, so a scaffolding company was commissioned. Cohen took many images and used Photoshop to piece them together – only partially cheating in my book.



Toby Cohen. “Sunrise in Mezada.”


One can only hope the figures leaping (dancing on air?) in “Sunrise in Mezada” took safety precautions, because they look like they are dangerously close to plummeting off the side of the Masada fortress and dashing themselves across the floor of the Judean dessert. The leftmost figure, who wears a prayer shawl, stands in a position mid-way between the flamingo-orientation popularized in “Karate Kid” and a Cruciform position. The other two figures – one leaping, one lunging – reach their arms out toward the heavens. There is something cartoony about the image, but it also evokes the scale and proportion of the hyperrealism of the Hudson River School, in which 19th century American artists like Thomas Cole and Frederic Church showed small figures dwarfed by expansive, mystical and beautiful landscapes.


I find other photographs of Cohen’s less effective, like “Sunrise over the Borders of Romania,” which shows a hovering figure which reminds me of the police officers (with their primitive jetpacks) in François Truffaut’s 1966 adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.”


“Mincha,” which depicts a praying man clad in all white standing in the woods with his hands clasped, is a greater success. Though the man assumes a central position in the composition, the landscape is so compelling and powerful that it rivals him for prominence and must be considered a character rather than just an environment. The same cannot be said of “Gedalia and the Cows,” perhaps Cohen’s take on “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” in which a colorful man, apparently named Gedalia, lifts his hands heavenward amongst a herd of mostly uninterested and unimpressed cows.


At least on my computer, there is obvious Photoshopping around the figure in “Fiddler on the Roof,” but the composition is really interesting, and the fiddler seems believable, like Chagall’s suspended kissers. “Ariel” will remind some Facebook users of the all-too-popular photographs people take of friends or family members jumping, captured mid-air. This sort of image was perhaps most famously undertaken by photographer Philippe Haussman, subject of the Smithsonian Magazine October 2006 story, “When He Said ‘Jump…,'” by Owen Edwards. Cohen’s contribution is the addition of the jumping chassid.


Toby Cohen. “Yum Kippur Project, 2009.”


But the image the gallery makes the biggest deal about is “Yum Kippur Project, 2009″ – Cohen’s take on a famous 1878 painting by Maurycy Gottlieb called “Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur.” Cohen set the scene on a stage with family members and other people who have played an important part in his life (an ex-girlfriend was one of them), and he represented himself as the figure who was Gottlieb’s self-portrait.


In a YouTube clip linked on Cohen’s site, he explains that he has learned that the set-up and a variety of elements leading up to pushing the button on the camera are more important than the mechanical act of taking the picture (which explains how he justifies being a photographer and including himself in the work). With the exception of some typos in the Hebrew inscription on the right side of the photograph, I agree with Cohen that the work is more interesting for its production than its execution per se. If we have Gottlieb, we don’t necessarily need Cohen’s interpretation, and it has its work cut out for itself to compete with the original.


But it is the blending of painting and photography, like Cohen’s experimentation with reality and Photoshop, which is most noteworthy in this body of work. Time will tell how important the works truly are, but they definitely deserve a close look.


Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.  He lives in Washington, D.C.

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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