BAMIDBAR: Contemporary Painting of the Biblical Wilderness Narrative
March 1-26, 2005
Curated by John Bradford
The Mercer Gallery, 55 Mercer St
(212) 226-8513


Many mistranslate the word “midbar” as desert, whereas the word really carries more of a connotation for wasteland or wilderness, perhaps deriving from the root dever for “plague” or davar for “word” or “thing.” Desert implies a physical location; it evokes cacti, sand and jackals, ablaze with reds, yellows and siennas, whereas wilderness suggests more of a literary construct or a mood of sorts.

The Makor Artists-in-Residence program at the 92 Street Y is currently engaging notions of wandering and journey. As a fellow in that program, I have had the opportunity to explore aspects of journey such as preparation and map making, memory and nostalgia, comfort and adventure. These are all affiliates of the word midbar, which suggests aimlessness and a psychological journey – perhaps an interior one – in addition to a physical one.

What can it mean to wander in an aesthetic wilderness? Can paint achieve an understanding of the Jews’ sojourn in the desert that attends to a deeper conception than simply literal depictions of scenes from the Book of Numbers?

The current exhibit at the Mercer Gallery showcases the paintings of Stanley Fein, Anthony Siani, Joel Silverstein, Simon Carr, John Bradford, Younghee Choi Martin, Richard McBee, and Jack Silberman, and it seeks an aesthetic exploration of the Biblical wanderings.

A study in siennas and umbers that evokes some of Paul Klee’s linear drawings, John Bradford’s “The Report of the Spies” appropriates a wall of the gallery space. The painting references Moses’ appointment of the 12 spies sent to scout out Canaan and to generate an appropriate military strategy by which to conquer it. The plan goes amuck when the spies choose instead to use their positions to advance fear platforms that paralyze the people and send the multitude packing back into the wilderness for another 40 years. All the spies are punished, save Joshua and Caleb, who try to steer the people back towards G-d. The story of the spies is ripe with potential images for literal reference. It contains images of hope, strategy and strength, but also of fear, melancholy and punishment.

Bradford tackles the story by painting a three part narrative. On the left, the Moses figure stands steadfast with his staff in his right hand. Flanking him on his left, another figure beckons towards him, perhaps to reassure him, perhaps to restrain him. Moses looks towards the upper right corner of the painting, where two spies carry one of the huge fruits of the land. In the bottom right corner, a struggle emerges. Bradford writes of “two prognostications for military success… presented to Moses; one confident, one defeatist.” The spies inspire chaos amongst the people, and they concede the battle even before it has begun. When Moses apprehends them, many decide to attack the Canaanites without G-d’s permission, with further devastating results. Bradford manages to attend to both sides of this duality: the struggle and the violence on the one hand, and the resignation and fear on the other.

The painting is largely successful though, because the artist renders only the figures’ outlines. This allows the figures to “read” as structures of paint and not simply as naturalistic characters, but it also bares the characters’ innards. The viewer literally looks inside Moses and the spies. Bradford offers no answers of what they are thinking and what inspires their decisions, but he does force the viewer into that space, which necessarily raises many questions of motive and of self-meditation.

If Bradford’s painting explores intent and two conflicting responses to trauma and conflict, Richard McBee’s “The Sin Of The Golden Calf” interrogates notions of context. Those readers who read this column regularly might be interested to learn that McBee paints scenes other than the binding and sacrifice of Isaac, and I can vouch for the authenticity of this image even though it is not an akeida scene. McBee has written for this column since May 2000, and frankly, it is about time that he ends up on the opposite side of the review.

McBee’s “The Sin of the Golden Calf” shows Moses on the verge of smashing the tablets as the people frolic below about the golden calf. In McBee’s words, “danced arms akimbo and wailed, drunk and out of control, delirious at returning to a familiar idol.” The image has a bit of King Midas in it: golds, bronzes, ochres and browns dominate the pictorial space, with an occasional spattering of whites and greens. McBee seems to have learnt something from Poussin’s and di Raffaello’s golden calves, though he opts for a more abstract idol and a much smaller, younger calf to the other painters’ hefty cows. McBee employs several visual puns in his work like the fence surrounding the mountain, perhaps referencing the commandment, “Make a fence unto the Torah.” The verse speaks of a demarcated boundary that prevented the Jews from ascending Mount Sinai, but McBee manages a white picket fence (lending it an unexpected purple tinge at times), which manages to plant the Biblical scene in a more modern context.

Waiting obediently midway up the mountain for his master, the character of Joshua wears contemporary garb – a dress shirt and brown trousers – and further lends the painting a more modern and immediate oomph. McBee’s work often collapses the time gap and the culture clash between the modern viewer and the Biblical story by modernizing clothing and other iconography.

But there is something much deeper at play in McBee’s painting. I had the privilege of hearing painter Ahmed Abdalla address a class I attended at Massachusetts College of Art, where he spoke of trying to attain “a specific type of vagueness” in his work. He distinguished between that notion and the converse, a vague type of specificity. When a painter seeks to navigate an abstract space like Ahmed and McBee do, the painter must interpret an ambiguous visual field confidently and honestly.

When painting from life, the painter’s job is clearly defined: thou shalt be wholly obedient and faithful in thy efforts to capture nature. Mimesis – or copying – produces an exact replication of the object. But when naturalistic imagery dissolves into forms and colors and lines, the painter must find a new language. As the Genesis story speaks of G-d forging order within the chaos, the painter must maintain an internal logic even within the expressionistic form. Once the vocabulary is specific and clear, the painter can tackle vagueness as a subject, but never as a medium.

Thus McBee paints Moses standing atop the mountain not simply because the play casts a Moses character there, but also because the painting dictates a large white form to construct a triangle with the white form in the clouds in the right corner and with the dancing white forms along the middle of the bottom edge of the painting.

McBee thus literally paints his way through the wilderness. Just as the Jews had a choice of finding G-d in the wilderness, of finding meaning in the manna and the Temple and the commandments, McBee opts to find a structure in the forms of paint. He builds a chaotic wilderness, but the viewer, even as he or she sees the confusion, is always aware of the artist’s hand balancing the forms. He thus avoids the same pitfall upon which the generation of the spies and of the Golden Calf worshippers stumbled: a lack of awareness of underlying meaning.

Too many painters use abstraction as an excuse to cover poor compositional meditation. They get lost in the trajectory of the brushstrokes, the dazzling effect of the colors. They then set themselves “tired, and exhausted and not G-d fearers,” just like the generation of the wilderness.

McBee’s work and John Bradford’s work thus raises the question, is the painter really a G-d fearer? That is to say, has the painter who wishes to capture the moment of midbar really internalized the message of surface tension and superficial chaos, while still realizing that there is a Divine hand that dictates order beneath? If the answer is yes, then the painting has faithfully captured the portrait of the midbar.

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: