Paintings and Objects by Lynn Russell
Chassidic Art Institute
375 Kingston Ave., Brooklyn, New York 11213; (718) 774 9149
Noon – 7pm; Sunday – Thursday: Zev Markowitz, director
Until January 24, 2008
Lynn Russell’s current exhibition at the Chassidic Art Institute challenges us with a piety that resists all easy answers. First there are the Baruch HaShem pieces, highly unusual collaged texts combining letters, images and objects that somehow lead us to the painted and altered photographs of Jewish life, finally guiding us to her signature image, “One Way.” Exactly where is the artist taking us?
Baruch HaShem (2006), 11 x 14, collage, photograph and oil paint by Lynn Russell
On the most banal material, the letters – each salvaged from a unique source – take on a kind of visual poetry of their own while on the more recognizable host, they battle for recognition, tending to obscure and bully the everyday object. In her use of these commonplace objects as the foundation and foil for the expression of thanks, Russell manages to illuminate yiddishkeit with a “pop” sensibility, somehow grounding the expression of acceptance and gratitude with the nitty gritty of everyday life.
Bus Lane (2006), 5 x 7, collage and photograph by Lynn Russell
Finally her vision fixates on an ultimate manipulation of image and text in Baruch HaShem. She has photographed a collage of the text with each letter seeming to take on a life of its own. There are swatches of colored paper and traces of other collage material, all composed with more of an eye to rearrange the text rather than elucidate it. But the surprise is that now Russell has photographed the original collage and painted in oils on top of it, adding yet another level of visual complexity. The final effect is of an integrated painting; viscous, deep and personal, even though the artwork is neither totally painting, or photograph or collage.
Lynn Russell’s next set of images returns to works we are more familiar with from her earlier exhibitions, the manipulated photograph or Xerox print. Here however she starts out with a very limited palette, exclusively black and white. The first two images are immersed in celebration taken from a wedding; a kallah posing in front of a screen and a group of Hasidic men dancing. But simple documents, they are not.
Similarly the dancers in Mazel Tov celebrate with the chassan, clad in a white kittel, but here, seem to be black-hatted actors in another more ominous drama. The environment is super-charged with agitated lines that generate an uneasy tension and the chassan suddenly seems vulnerable and alienated from the revelers.
Her next set of images is even more radically rendered in black and white. Four stark images of men; each individual virtually anonymous because of the radical nature of Russell’s copying, enlarging, re-photographing, and copying until she has transformed the original image into her own vision. They are ciphers of religious men engaged in otherworldly pursuits, removed from the world by the very nature of the artist’s manipulation. In a startling way these black and white images reach their fulfillment in the three large-scale, painted color photographs that crown the exhibition’s ambitious theme.
In her most radical distillation, Bar Mitzvah, Russell depicts the public reading of the Torah as a confrontation between the brilliantly lit white scroll and a deeply silhouetted figure, clad in tallis and kipah. The reader is concentrating, focused only on where the yad has momentarily rested. At this moment he clearly knows no other world than the holy words. It is an image of enormous solitude even though we know with certainty that this scene can happen only in the public scene of a congregation.
Lynn Russell’s artwork resides on a very fine edge between the deeply felt piety of “Baruch HaShem” and all the doubts and tension that pursuing a religious life can have on our individuality, our independence and freedom. Do the words “Baruch HaShem”, uttered in thankfulness, faith, and submission to God’s will, also mean that we must lose a bit (or more) of ourselves in the Divine will? Do we become less or more in these encounters? These are the questions that Lynn Russell’s current exhibition makes impossible to avoid.
Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at email@example.com