Chassidic Art Institute
375 Kingston Avenue, Brooklyn, New York 11213;
(718) 774 9149.
Zev Markowitz, director
Noon – 7 p.m.; Sunday – Thursday until June 20, 2002.
Some people may believe Jewish Art is a simple endeavor. All you need is a Jew who makes art and
voila, Jewish Art! I say to these cultural determinists, not so fast. You think Jewishness flows in the blood like chicken soup. Too often, we have seen Jews produce politics, literature and art that are far removed from Jewish values or, even worse, outright anti-Semitic and dangerous. As with anything else of importance, we must examine exactly what constitutes a work of art and what meaning is transmitted. Simply stated, Jewish Art must start with Jewish subject matter and must express Jewish content.
Lynn Russell’s 22 paintings currently on view at the Chassidic Art Institute in Crown Heights are the embodiment of Jewish subject matter and content in ways that may not be as obvious as they first seem. More than half of these unusual oil paintings are specific to Jewish life in Boro Park, Crown Heights and Israel.
In Bar Mitzvah, Crown Heights, a Bar Mitzvah Boy seated at the table of honor is framed by two figures. On the left is his uncle, sporting a crumpled hat and staring back at the viewer with a gaze fully conscious of the importance of this event in the boy’s life. In the center, the beaming lad is absorbed in the moment of greeting guests and accepting congratulations. Finally, the right side is dominated by a shadowy figure towering over the uncle and the Bar Mitzvah Boy. Who or what is this presence? Perhaps it is the unknowable future of opportunities and dangers. Upon closer examination, we notice that the painting seems to look like a photograph. Many of the features are sharp and detailed while other objects blur out of focus. In fact, most of these paintings began as photographs taken by the artist. Adding color and contrast in oil paint, Russell works over the photograph changing details or entire figures until she has transformed these mechanical images into paintings now fashioned by her own hands.
The tension between the photographic origin and the final painting produces a central meaning that runs through each work. The artist has pushed and shaped what was originally an ordinary slice-oflife snapshot into a significant event that, through careful composition and selection, attains a larger meaning. This technique has parallels in Gerhard Richter’s photo paintings (much larger in scale) in the massive retrospective currently at the Museum of Modern Art. Russell’s methodology remains transparent as the contrast between focus and blur, now charged or exaggerated, makes us continually aware of the changes in memory and perception that all events undergo over time.
Using the same technique, Chupah, Williamsburg started as a snapshot of a chasan escorted to the chupah. Now it has become a stark study in black and white. The abstract shape of the chasan’s kittel is framed between the glaring candle on the left and the equally abstract shape of florescent light that runs across the top and behind the man in the streimel at the right. The extreme tensions of black and white and contrasts of hats and styles of dress highlight the jarring transition all young grooms must face in shedding youth and assuming the responsibilities of adulthood.
An entirely different type of transition is occurring in Still Life, Hachnasas Sefer Torah, Boro Park. Here the painting is pinched and squeezed by the close cropped figures in a precarious procession of a new sefer Torah. The donor, supported by the synagogue president on one side and the partial figure of the rabbi on the other, is metaphorically transporting the holy Torah from its supernal origins, suggested at the upper right above the rabbi, to a congregational hand awaiting it on the lower left. Again, the selective blurring and editing of the photograph achieves immediacy and focus. The background fades away as immaterial while the Torah fuses in color and shape with the donor. This Torah, dedicated to his wife and his parents, will forever be referred to as his Sefer Torah.
Russell moves from the personal to the communal in Crown Heights Matzah Bakery. The Matzah baker strides purposefully as he drives the pole deep into the fiery oven. A second, unused pole becomes part of the diagonal rhythm and choreography of the baking process. The artist sees the dynamic, stop-action photographic image as a metaphor for our people’s vitality; still resolute, still baking Matzah, and still being Jews all these 3114 years.
There are at least five different kinds of Jewish subject matter. All of the paintings above belong to the category of communal subject matter that depicts life events of the Jewish people. Subject matter of ritual objects include all types of Judaica such as Kiddush cups, Torah shields, and spice boxes. Jewish texts are a major source of subject matter that includes not only Torah narratives themselves but also the Mishnah, Talmud and all manner of commentaries and works influenced by Jewish texts. They are an enormously important subject matter for Jewish as well as non-Jewish artists. Jewish history, ancient and contemporary, which subsumes the Holocaust and even Jewish landscapes, is yet another one. Finally there is a kind of subject matter that is much closer to the heart; one that is intimate and familial. Domestic subject matter, depicting the Jewish home, the Shabbos table, the seder and the Jewish woman, is one of the most common and, because of the temptations of sentimentality and nostalgia, perhaps one of the most difficult to render.
Shabbos Lights, Pesach Table operates at first as a conventional still life until we notice tensions and visual inconsistencies. The details of the objects, the tablecloth and the background have a preliminary clarity that blurs in a Vermeer-like optical deception when you approach the canvas up close. What seemed sharp becomes elusive. The composition is simple and yet disarmingly unbalanced. The two short candles seem to cower under one tall candle while the other tall candle stands aloof stretching from top to bottom of the canvas. The differences between brass candlesticks and the crystal counterparts, tall verses short candles and the light and dark background begin to disturb the peace that Shabbos is supposed to bring until you notice the flames themselves. Each flame radiates a hot light as the slashes of orange oil paint vibrate against the complementary purple background. The simple slabs of yellow flame and orange afterglow unify the painting in a progression from top to middle as a holy glow descends on the Shabbos table. Each of us, represented by a singular candle, is a different individual, and yet, can be united by the flame of Shabbos holiness.
There is of course more to art than Jewish subject matter. In this exhibition Lynn Russell also shows beautiful floral paintings, landscapes and ‘house portraits.’ Additionally, she has an extensive career as a portrait painter. All her work could handsomely grace many a Jewish home. But for me, it is the Jewish subjects of communal and domestic life, with her perceptive insights, that move me. And for her too, this Jewish world is a new and compelling subject. We all stand to benefit from her fresh and vibrant explorations into the world of Jewish Art.Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art. He is active in the American Guild of Judaic Art (jewishart.org) and the Young Israel of Fifth Avenue. Please feel free to email him with comments at email@example.com.