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April 19, 2014 / 19 Nisan, 5774
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘Forum Gallery’

Geographical Silhouettes

Wednesday, January 6th, 2010

Peter Krausz: (No) Man’s Land

Through January 16, 2010

745 Fifth Avenue, 5th floor, New York

http://www.forumgallery.com/

 

 

Per Deuteronomy 21, when a corpse is found in the wilderness, an elaborate ceremony ensues that is clearly intended to disrupt the regular routines of the townspeople living nearby. The judges and elders determine which city is closest to the crime scene, and the elders of that city take a young calf, which has never been yoked, to a dismal valley, which could never sustain agricultural life, where they break the calf’s neck. The Levites then arrive to observe the elders washing their hands over the bloody calf and declaring, “Our hands did not spill this blood, nor did our eyes perceive it. Therefore, God, forgive your people Israel, whom You redeemed, and do not allow innocent blood to flow amongst your nation, and let this blood atone for them.”

 

Everything about the episode of the Eglah Arufah – the broken calf -screams desolation, wilderness and boundaries. Since the murder victim is found outside the city limits, culpability is measured by the closest city, perhaps because that is likely to be the killer’s hometown or because that city should have better policed its outskirts. The calf, like the victim, is pure sacrificed potential, having never been worked, and the valley is so remote that even the flora avoids it. What better place for contemplation of the corpse and the atonement than the wilderness which cleansed the Israelites after they departed Egypt and which helped mold prophets and leaders like the shepherd boys Moses and David?

 

 

Peter Krausz. “(No) Man’s Land No. 14.” 2008. Secco on panel. 24 x 80 inches

 

Just as in life, it is necessary to set boundaries in art, although there are of course different sorts of boundaries. In a drawing, lines are used to capture the contours of objects (negative space), while paintings are shape based (positive space). An artist either draws around an object or paints the actual forms of the object. In a C?zanne still life, an apple ends where a pear begins, and in a Thomas Cole landscape, the horizon line separates a stormy sky and a mountain. But though it is necessary to set borders in art, not all artists are thrilled about the notion of setting limits.

 

Montr?al painter Peter Krausz knows enough about borders – the real sort, not just the aesthetic ones – to be suspicious of them and the people who tend to set them up. Krausz and his family escaped from Eastern Block Romania in 1969, which has led to his “long-standing preoccupation with the concept of borders,” according to a press release from Forum Gallery, which is showing his work through January 16, and with “the frontiers that sometimes follow natural geographical features but which are often arbitrarily, even brutally, imposed on nature, landscapes, and human beings.”

 

Peter Krausz. “(No) Man’s Land No. 9.” 2008. Secco on panel. 40 x 30 inches

 

 

Krausz created the 15 works of the Forum Gallery show using a mixture of high and low-tech techniques. Using satellite photographs from Google Earth, Krausz identified “no man’s land” areas, which are either unoccupied or disputed. He traveled to the areas and photographed them. Based on his photographs and the satellite images, Krausz painted the areas from a bird’s eye perspective, which he compares to Japanese emperors looking out over their land from a high vantage point as a way of owning the land. It also resembles Moses standing on Mount Nebo overlooking the land of Naftali, Ephraim, Menasseh and Judah, as well as the sea, the south and the plains, and as far as Jericho and Tzoar – all effectively no-man’s lands to him.

 

Krausz, who was born in 1946 in Romania, trained at the Bucharest Academy of Fine Arts. Today he is professor of fine art at the University of Montr?al. He uses a painting technique called secco, where he starts with a dry plaster surface and then applies a series of thin layers (like watercolor) of egg-based paints. The paintings have rich, earth tones, and seem to go on forever, since Krausz crops out the horizon line. This has the effect of making the landscape look like a story sea of continuous waves (even if they have trees on them) for as long as the eye can see. In the documentary “Peter Krausz: No Man’s Land” (Doina Harap Productions, 2009), Krausz says he also removed figures from the landscapes to arrive at an “almost biblical,” pre-human sort of scene. “Before the houses, the roads and the telephone post,” he says, “a universal landscape.”

 

Peter Krausz. “(No) Man’s Land No. 6.” 2008. Secco on panel. 36 x 80 inches

 

In the documentary, Krausz explains that he learned he was Jewish when he was the victim of anti-Semitism. “I could say I became a Jew the moment my little schoolmates called me a dirty Jew – that’s when I realized I was one. Because otherwise there was nothing else in my surroundings in Bucharest to let me know I was one,” he says. “So when that happened I became one and it stayed with me. Especially the history – the history of the Jewish people is of particular interest to me. Why this ongoing persecution that never ceases and is still continuing?”

 

Anti-Semitism has become a part of some of Krausz’s other series, like “De Natura (Humana),” where out-of-focus images of a man in a public bath echo Concentration camp iconography. In their book “Image and Remembrance: Representation and the Holocaust,” Shelley Hornstein and Florence Jacobowitz argue the images’ sense of “vulnerability” and “menace,” coupled with Krausz’s larger body of work, suggests a World War II theme. Krausz himself says that the photographs, coupled with an installation of long keys reminiscent of factory keys to open valves, evoke the Holocaust, and “you cannot help but think of the concentration camps, of the shower rooms where people were killed, gassed.”

 

 

Peter Krausz. “(No) Man’s Land No. 7.” 2008. Secco on panel. 40 x 30 inches

 

 

But even where Jewish themes and content is not so blatantly apparent, one gets the sense that Krausz’s work has a Jewish component to it. “For many years, even crossing the border into the United States was hard. We arrived at the border and there was … a little fear,” he says. “This might be hard to understand for Canadians or Americans, but for us the border still represents something dangerous and closed.” When Krausz returned to Berlin in the late 1980s, seeing the Berlin Wall, which was “extremely visible and heavy,” his fears of borders were renewed.

 

But no matter how much fear and pain bred Krausz’s work, the borders in his paintings are created by a generous hand, which seeks to understand the landscapes rather than to enforce rigid limits on them. It is a clich? amongst art instructors to tell students to allow the paint (or charcoal) to speak, but that is exactly what Krausz does for the landscapes he observes, studies and then recreates. It would be presumptuous and coy to call his mapmaking Tikkun Olam (the pop-Kabbalistic notion of repairing the world) or even progressive (in Hegel’s sense), but some viewers may well see a redemptive aspect mixed in with the wilderness of the no man’s land.

 

“It is often said that when you’ve left your home and you’ve immigrated and traveled, you’re always trying to rediscover the landscape of your childhood,” Krausz says. “So when I started focusing on landscaping in my work, I wondered if it was because I was trying to find this landscape that I had not seen again until 1994, when I returned to Romania after 25 years.”

 

Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC.

The Frog, the Demons, and the Jewish Star

Wednesday, October 1st, 2008

The Frog, the Demons, and the Jewish Star
Mark Podwal: Jewish Magic
Forum Gallery, 745 Fifth Avenue
http://www.forumgallery.com

 

 

Perhaps upholding Leviticus 19:31, which insists, “Do not turn to those who worship Ob or to wizards; do not desire to become defiled by them,” King Saul launched a campaign to eradicate magicians from the Holy Land which was so devastating that the Bible mentions it on three separate occasions. Yet Saul decided to violate his own ban when all he heard was dead air in response to his request of God for advice on the proper military strategy to defeat the Philistine army.


Saul masked his identity and visited a “wife of the idol of Ob” to ask her to facilitate communication with the late prophet Samuel. Amazed, the conjurer asked, “Do you not know what Saul has done, that he has cut off the worshipers of Ob and the wizards from the land,” and perhaps suspicious of her client’s identity added, “Why are you tricking my soul, to have me killed?” (1 Samuel 28: 3-14).

 

 



Although commentators and scholars debate Saul’s actions and their apparent disregard for the Second Commandment, Kabbalistic masters and Jewish artists have long embraced magic and amulets. Hamsa hands are still believed to disarm the evil eye, and some carry miniature copies of the book of the Angel Raziel to protect against fires. Mark Podwal’s exhibit, “Jewish Magic” at Forum Gallery in Manhattan, continues in that tradition, drawing specifically from the artist’s many visits to Prague, where he is such an important fixture that he holds his own personal seat at the Altneuschul, the Old New Synagogue.


Podwal’s ink drawing, “The Frog who taught Rabbi Hanina the whole Torah” (1982), illustrates his interest in esoteric tales that do not typically surface in Day School curricula. Podwal’s wife discovered the story, which is more reminiscent of princes bravely and reluctantly kissing would-be maidens in frog-form than it is of the literal frogs that plagued Egypt – while reading Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews.

 

 


 

 

According to Ginsburg, Rabbi Hanina learned from his deathbed-ridden father that he would lose both his parents on the same day. Further, his father instructed him to go to the market immediately after the mourning period ended (which would be Passover eve) and purchase the first item that he saw. When Hanina went to the market after completing the days of mourning for his parents, he was offered a grossly overpriced silver dish. In the interest of honoring his father, he bought the dish, and upon opening it at the Seder, he found another dish inside holding a frog.

Like a good pet owner Hanina fed the frog, which grew to an enormous size. First he had to build a cabinet to house it, and when it got even larger, an entire room. The frog literally ate Hanina out of house and home, but it recognized the imposition it was presenting and offered Hanina whatever he wished. Hanina asked to be taught the entire Torah, and the frog agreed. It wrote the Torah on paper, which Hanina consumed.


In so doing, he not only learned the whole Torah, but also all 70 languages as well as the languages of animals (much like King Solomon did). And just as Solomon, in asking only for knowledge, he also acquired wealth and power. The frog gave Hanina and his wife precious stones and herbs (which carried medicinal powers) and revealed his true identity as one of Adam’s sons, born during his 130-year separation from Eve, who was capable of shape shifting.


Podwal’s work shows the frog clinging to the tail end of a Torah pointer, called a yad or hand, for its incorporation of a hand motif in its tip. The pointer is meant to allow the Torah reader to follow along in the Torah scroll without touching the holy parchment (human hands could render the parchment impure), which makes it comical to see a frog grasping it.


Further, Podwal’s frog matter-of-factly looks at the Hebrew letters surrounding the pointer, wholly confident that he belongs in a Torah context. Just as the artists of the Surrealist and Magic Realist schools blurred the boundary between dreams and reality and called upon their audiences to suspend their disbelief, Podwal chose to draw the frog in a naturalistic way rather than an ironic or cartoony manner. The rabbis famously said that those who believe every Midrash (loosely, the Jewish version of fairytales) are fools; yet those who deny the medium are heretics. The frog who taught Rabbi Hanina is no exception, and it exists somewhere between fact and fiction.


“Demons Watering King Solomon’s Gardens” (1998) also follows the same model. Podwal envisions the demons as blue snake-like forms, with hands, horns and ears, and the demons carry Grecian jugs, no doubt full of water. Solomon was said to have had a splendid garden that was able to thrive even in the desert – due to demonic aid.

 

 


 



Several other supernatural forms appear in Podwal’s works in the Forum show, including Lilith, queen of the demons; Metatron, a non-biblical angel who was said to be the chief angel and divine scribe; and “The Devil Proper” (2006), represented as a brick-red bat’s wing, with three demons grabbing on for the ride. Just as many Jewish medieval manuscripts show the hand of God exacting punishment on the Egyptians (but never more of God), Podwal shows just the devil’s wing, which leaves the full extent of Satan’s horror and menace up to the viewer’s imagination. This is, of course, far more frightening – to not even know the extent of the evil present.


Podwal’s show is not all devastation and demons. Also present are powerful symbols of Jewish pride, like the Jewish star that appears in “Stars of David” (2008). Situated just several feet from a screen showing the documentary “House of Life: The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague,” which Podwal created with filmmaker Allan Miller, “Stars of David” includes a yellow star threaded with barbed wire; the tombstone of David Ganz (whom Podwal calls “the first Jewish historian”) from the Old Jewish Cemetery; and a representation of an 18-foot flag financed by Mordechai Maisel, which had the Shema written on it and is dated to the 16th century (or 13th, according to some). The star is meant to symbolize the Star of David’s first appearance in a Jewish context in 15th century Prague.

 

 


 


Surely Podwal’s works, like all art, should be considered as art first and potential educational materials second. But there is a great need for more attention to Jewish storytelling and Kabbalistic narratives. “People so adhere to the Second Commandment, and Judaism is really a religion of the word and not so much a visual religion,” Podwal lamented to me after touring the show. And I think he is quite right. There is obviously great importance to knowing the Law and the practical aspects of Judaism, but stories and myths must supplement those laws to provide a complete perspective. After all, even the Midrash is split into two subdivisions: the practical, Midrash Halacha, and the legendary, Midrash Agaddah. Podwal’s art often calls upon viewers to learn more about Jewish tales, and in doing so, helps ensure that the tales will continue to live on.


Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, and resides in Washington, D.C.


Although the exhibit at Forum Gallery has closed, Mark Podwal’s works can be viewed on his website, www.markpodwal.com, and in Harold Bloom’s new book, Fallen Angels (Yale University Press, 2007), and his calendar for the Jewish Museum of Prague is available through Calendars.com (advanced search for “Mark Podwal”). House of Life will be shown by PBS in April 2009.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/the-frog-the-demons-and-the-jewish-star/2008/10/01/

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