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Posts Tagged ‘Golden Calf’

Parshas Ki Sisa: ‘Don’t Panic’

Friday, March 9th, 2012

Klal Yisroel stood at Har Sinai and accepted the Torah in a state of supreme purity and complete unity. Every Jew reached a level of prophecy and witnessed an unparalleled revelation of G-d. Then Moshe ascended Har Sinai for forty days so G-d could teach him the laws and details of the Torah.

When the forty days had ended, Klal Yisroel thought Moshe would not return, and they panicked. The result was catastrophic; they created a golden calf and committed an egregious sin.

How did they reach such a low level? It began with a miscalculation. They thought Moshe was supposed to return that day. When six hours passed and he had still not returned, they began to worry. They knew Moshe was very precise – to him midnight was exactly midnight and midday was precisely midday. Now, they began to panic. If Moshe was really gone, G-d forbid, what would become of them? Who would lead them into Israel? Would they remain in the desert for eternity? Would the mahn continue to fall – after all it was only due to Moshe that it fell in the first place? And if there was no mahn what would become of their families? To make matters worse, the Satan showed them the image of Moshe dead.

The Satan did not succeed in totally convincing the Jewish people that he died, for the people only said, “we do not know what became of him.” However, they did allow their imagination to overpower their intellect. They were terribly frightened. If they had been completely logical they would have reasoned that G-d would not abandon them, even if Moshe did not return; perhaps Aharon would take over. The problem was that the people followed what their eyes saw, not what logic dictated.

Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz zt’l pointed out that in the Hoshanos recited on Hoshana Rabba we beseech G-d to save, “the ground from accursedness … the soul from panic.” In that paragraph we ask G-d to save the granary from “gazam” – a type of locust, and the crop from “arbeh” – another type of locust, for they are destructive forces.

By the same token the soul must be saved from panic, for it is a destroyer. This is precisely what happened in the desert. The people panicked and were so frightened they were not able to think logically. This led to decisions made in haste.

The lesson we must learn from their sin is not to allow ourselves to be immediately overwhelmed by what our eyes see. Our imagination can at times paint terrible pictures, but we must remember that it is only our imagination.

Why did the Jews panic so much when they thought Moshe would not return?

Let’s keep in mind that though the nation had just accepted the Torah at Sinai, a mere year earlier they were lowly slaves living in a brutal exile.

Servitude does not only destroy one’s physical sense of freedom, it destroys the one’s mental and psychological sense of self as well. A slave becomes completely dependent on his masters. There are no bills to pay or decisions to make. The slave forfeits his identity to his master and knows nothing other than the directions imposed upon him.

When the Jews marched forth from Egypt they had the difficult challenge of not only traversing the land of their captivity but also triumphing over the slave mentality that had infiltrated their conscience for so many generations. That reality was extremely daunting and immobilizing for the newly freed nation. They were frightened by the prospect that they had to make their own decisions and forge their own pathways in service to G-d.

So when they thought Moshe would not return they feared that they would be unable to lead their families and live up to their lofty potentials without an intermediary to guide them.

This mindset was an integral part of the sin of the Golden Calf. It wasn’t only what they did; it was also the feeling of turmoil and fear which caused their actions. They were held accountable for allowing their emotions to overwhelm them because they did not sufficiently believe in themselves!

With this in mind we can understand why the Torah repeats the importance of safeguarding Shabbos prior to its narrative of the sin of the Golden Calf. When Shabbos is observed properly it helps instill within us a sense of serenity and inner-peace. It is a day of connection when we remind ourselves of our priorities. On Shabbos we have the ability to contemplate life and our place in it in a manner that we cannot achieve during the other six days, which are more chaotic and fast-paced.

When one observes Shabbos properly he is protected from sins such as the Golden Calf.

Parshat Tetzaveh: Spiritual refinement in the miluim process

Thursday, March 1st, 2012

B”H

TETZAVEH spotlights the selection, vestments, and inauguration of Aharon and his sons as Israel’s Kohanim (Priests). The extra responsibilities taken on by Aharon’s progeny involve conducting the everyday tasks pertaining to the Temple and serving as spiritual leaders to their nation. The Kohanim have often distinguished themselves within Israel for both a patriotic love for the Hebrew Nation and a passionate zeal on behalf of Torah, the pinnacle of which has frequently been the readiness to forfeit their lives for the sake of G-D’s Name – an exalted level of sacrifice placing one’s love for HaShem above all other considerations.

Upon a superficial reading, however, Aharon appears to have lacked this readiness for ultimate sacrifice. When confronted with the option of either being killed by his own people or helping to construct the Golden Calf, he opted for participation in building the idol. Although Aharon may have been justified in his decision (based on a concern for how Israel’s future would be impacted by the national stain of having killed their High Priest), he did not display an absolute willingness to die rather than compromise G-D’s Truth. Although Aharon was undeniably righteous and had already been Divinely selected to become Israel’s Kohen Gadol, he required the rectification of the miluim process in order to return him and his family to their previous state of kedusha.

While the transgression of the Golden Calf had caused Aharon to feel a sense of distance from HaShem, the miluim was intended to bring him close again through spiritual perfection. The priestly vestments play a central role in this process and great detail is offered in describing them. When the description is finished, the Torah instructs:

“With them you shall dress Aharon your brother and his sons with him; You shall anoint them, and you shall fill their hand, and you shall sanctify them, and they shall be Kohanim to Me.” (SHEMOT 28:41)

Sforno comments on this verse that “You shall anoint them” means to spiritually complete them so that they (the Kohanim) will be worthy of the Divine service. Trust in HaShem is a prerequisite to sincere and passionate service. Perfect trust involves living His Torah without fearful considerations as only good can ultimately result from righteous conduct. This level of complete trust empowers one with the readiness to offer his own life for the sake of HaShem’s honor, as the Shema Yisrael prayer dictates:

“Love HaShem your G-D with all your heart, all your soul and all that you have.”

Our Sages teach on this: “Even if G-D takes your life.” (Brachot 54a)

Mesirut Nefesh (self-sacrifice) is the ultimate expression of trust in HaShem, as it gives birth to the sanctification of His Name, essentially magnifying His Ideal for this world.

Israel was born out of a readiness for sacrifice. It was because Avraham was willing to sanctify G-D’s Name at the expense of his own life in Ur Kasdim that he merited to become the prototype and father of the Hebrew Nation.

When thrown into the furnace by the tyrant Nimrod, Avraham had no guarantee of salvation. He was simply willing to give his life for what he knew to be true. He was rewarded not only with miraculously surviving the flames, but also with becoming the patriarch of the nation elected to express HaShem’s Ideal in every facet of human existence.

The Midrash teaches that as a result of his willingness to sacrifice his life for G-D’s Truth, Avraham merited things in this world which the righteous do not normally merit until the World-to-Come.

“Why did Avraham merit life without pain and without temptation here on earth, what HaShem shall ultimately give to the righteous in the World-to-Come? It is because he sacrificed his life for the glory of heaven in Ur Kasdim. Whoever sacrifices himself in this way is awarded life in this world and long, plentiful, infinite life in the World-to-Come… With Nimrod and the entire generation of the dispersion seated there, Avraham entered and was placed at the center. He descended and said his piece. Nimrod asked him, `If not [idols], then whom shall I worship?’ and Avraham replied, `The Supreme Master, Whose Kingdom exists in heaven and earth, and in the loftiest heavens.’ Nimrod answered, `I shall serve the god of fire, and I shall throw you in. Let the G-D of whom you speak save you from the fiery furnace!’ They immediately bound him and placed him on the ground… G-D’s mercy instantly welled up and He descended from the highest heavens, from the place of His glory, greatness and majesty, of His holy Name, and saved Avraham from that shame and mortification and from that fiery furnace, as it says, `I am the G-D Who took you out.’ (BEREISHIT 15:7)” (Eliyahu Rabbah 5)

The Nation of Israel is currently experiencing a “miluim” process that will ultimately empower us with complete trust in HaShem. Through the honest questions triggered by the challenges confronting our people, Israel is breaking free from our psychological limitations and ascending greater heights of collective responsibility and self-sacrifice. Only through a perfect trust in HaShem and an iron determination to advance the Zionist struggle can we reach the passion and fortitude necessary to overcome the obstacles currently blocking our path and shine our light to the world from the Kingdom of Israel. With Love of Israel,

Shapiro’s Midrash

Saturday, November 12th, 2011

Paintings from Midrash by Brian Shapir0

Chassidic Art Institute

November 6 – December 8

375 Kingston Avenue, Brooklyn (718) 774-9149

Noon – 7pm; Sunday – Thursday

 

The midrashic world is a dangerous place to inhabit.  It delves into our sacred texts to fathom their deeper meanings, solve vexing textual and conceptual problems and, finally, make sense of the holy words in contemporary terms.  Midrash is passionate and deeply creative, like the current midrashic paintings of Brian Shapiro.

Sea of Reeds (2010), oil on canvas, 12x12 by Brian Shapiro.

Shapiro is no stranger to Jewish themes; his enormous canvas, Generations, a tour-de-force of Jewish history, was reviewed in this column in August 2010.  Since then, the artist has become increasingly mesmerized by biblical subjects seen through a midrashic lens.  The lure of midrashic interpretation satisfies the need to know the details and specifics of many biblical narratives, i.e. the precise textures of how and why events unfolded in the devastatingly spare Torah text.  For a figurative artist like Shapiro, the multitude of midrashic exposition is a reassuring link with a tangible reality to anchor the text in this world.

Jacob and the Angel purports to depict the epic struggle between Jacob and a mysterious being who is either an emissary of God or the protecting angel of Jacob’s dangerous brother, Esav.  Based on a midrash in Beraishes Rabbah the artist shows the angel holding Jacob’s hand over a roaring fire.  While the midrash expounds that the angel stuck his hand into the earth and a volcano of flames erupted threatening Jacob, the painting doesn’t simply illustrate that event.  Rather, if we observe closely, both figures are indeed struggling not only between themselves, but are significantly repulsed by some unseen force off the left edge of the painting.  In fact, both angel and Jacob are aghast at what they perceive.  Indeed it is the mutual recognition that this primeval sibling struggle will reverberate throughout the millennia.   It seals the fate of soon to be named Yisrael and the nation who will descend from him with a terrible and bloody future.

The theme of sibling rivalry and conflict is of course central to many Biblical narratives, most especially that of Joseph and his brothers.  Shapiro’s Joseph and Brothersis terrifyingly on target.  The brothers, all turbaned except one, appear to be engaged in what in contemporary Israel would be called a “lynch.”   Most of the eleven have staffs that are used to threaten, push and drive the helpless half-naked Joseph off the edge of a precipice.   What is extraordinary is the ferocious compact energy of brotherly hatred revealed in bright daytime clarity.   A lone bareheaded brother is at the extreme left, looking away in concern as he holds Joseph’s many-colored cloak.  In this one bald figure is all the cunning and unacknowledged guilt of fratricide.  This figure represents none other than Reuven who pleaded with the rest not to murder Joseph and yet finally fashioned the vicious lie to his father with Joseph’s bloodied coat.  Here the artist has, by thinking midrashically, actually summoned the literal biblical text most evocatively.

Moses and the Rock (2010), oil on canvas, 24x30 by Brian Shapiro.

While much ancient midrash traditionally has the textual authority of the oral tradition transmitted by the Sages, it also must be seen in the dual contexts of the original textual “problem” and actual date the collections were finally redacted.  Nonetheless, regardless of date, all Torah commentary remains a vibrant source of contemporary understanding of sacred text.  Even a contemporary artist, passionate about the complexities of Torah narrative, can offer unique insights into the stories our tradition celebrates.   Sea of Reeds is an example of Shapiro’s contribution to midrashic exposition.  Significantly, in this exhibition the artist has explicitly offered his midrashic sources and explanations for each of the paintings.

Sotheby’s Jewish Vision

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

Sotheby’s Jewish Vision

Israeli, International Art & Important Judaica

1334 York Avenue, New York

sothebys.com

 


Every year in the early winter the world-renowned auction house, Sotheby’s, presents an auction of Israeli and International (Jewish) Art and Judaica.  It is always a delight and Sunday, December 12 was no exception.  Since it is an international affair, the foremost experts assemble the finest artworks available.  The efforts of specialists Rivka Saker, Sigal Mordechai, Daria Gluck, Esta Kilstein and Jennifer Roth of Sotheby’s Israel and Jennifer Roth, Sharon Liberman Mintz, David Wachtel, Elizabeth Muller, John Ward, Jill Waddell, Kevin Tierney here in New York were well rewarded. It was a truly exciting exhibition that frequently surprised one with new insights into many familiar artists.


While I was privileged to attend a private viewing hosted by Nishmat (Center for Advanced Torah Study for Women in Israel), these pre-auction exhibitions are normally open five days before the sale to the public and always have specialists available to answer questions and show off the objects.  As I strode into the exhibition I glanced at the diminutive Chagall but decided to look at it later.  An evocative pastel, Shulamith (1939) by Abel Pann, had caught my eye. 


 


Shulamith (1939), pastel on paper by Abel Pann

Courtesy Sotheby’s

 

Pann’s devotion to biblical subjects is well known, combining romanticism with exotic Bedouin costumes to produce what he thought would be authentic visualizations of ancient biblical characters.  What was unusual in this piece was that he had found an inner life to a predominantly sensual character.  The Shulamith is mentioned in Song of Songs 7:1 as an exquisitely beautiful dancer, at least in a literal translation.  Others have associated her with Avishag, the young virgin brought to the aged King David when he could find no warmth.  In either case we normally think of this woman in physical terms.  And yet here Pann has depicted a young redhead pensively draped over the branches of a tree in full bloom.  She rests her hand alongside her face deep in reflection.  Aside from a bare bracelet-covered arm, she is quite modestly clothed; the only sensual thing about her is the bright orange necklace and bracelet that the artist expertly threads around her and the tree blossoms.


Right next to this pastel was a rather typical landscape in charcoal by the well-known Anna Ticho (1894-1980).  This Jerusalem based artist was famous for her countless scenes of Israeli landscapes with evocative high horizons, many concentrating on the hills surrounding Jerusalem.  They are practically portraits of the Judean landscape peacefully devoid of significant human habitation. And this example was true to form, a steep brush-covered hill reaching to the top of the image, with one exception.  The title: The Burning Bush.  Dating to sometime in the 1960′s, its theme is singular for Ticho.  The fact that she turned a Jerusalem hillside into a sacred site reverberates wonderfully with the notion that all of Israel is holy. 

 

 


Looking for Mashiach (1947), oil on canvas by Moshe Castel

Courtesy Sotheby’s

 

Around the corner was an equally surprising Moshe Castel (1909-1992).  Born in Jerusalem to an ancient Sephardic family, he studied art at the Bezalel School and in Paris, and finally settled in Safed where many of his paintings pictured the Sephardi community of his youth.  Looking for Mashiach, painted in 1947, depicts five robed figures lightly walking across a nightscape.  Each is brilliantly colored, all facing a mysterious globe in the sky containing an arm and hand.  Hovering off to the side are two angels, while down in the valley below a little village glows.   This scene of mystery and wonder takes on special significance considering the year it was painted.  Israel was being flooded by survivors of the Holocaust and was only a year away from becoming the first independent Jewish state in more than 1900 years.  In their own ways many were “looking for Mashiach.”  Castel may have been the only artist actually painting it.


Upstairs there was the expansive Judaica section featuring, what from one perspective, was the “star” of the show, the Torah Finials from Congregation Shaar Hashamayim in Gibraltar.  Actually two pairs of silver finials (or rimonim): One from the Dutch silversmith Pieter van Hoven dated 1710 and the other pair of Italian finials probably from Turin and dated 1780-1820.  The Dutch pair is cast and exhibit elegant late Baroque decorative forms featuring gold bells and crown.  The Italian finials are a considerably more complex visual program.  They fuse Neoclassical architecture with Baroque ornamentation in the service of creating two tiers of compartments that ring each level.  Each little section elaborately depicts the Temple vessels and the Kohen’s service and is enclosed by a miniature balcony.  These masterpieces of Italian silversmith art are hand-tooled and embossed to produce amazing details of the Kohen’s tunic, the Temple menorah, the Tablets, hands in the priestly blessing, etc.  First allowed to settle again on the Iberian Peninsula when the British captured Gibraltar in 1704, the Jewish community grew steadily, flourishing as merchants to the British navy and army.  The Sephardic community was deeply cross-cultural, finding its roots from England, Amsterdam and Morocco.  This magnificent finial (of which the congregation evidently has many more) was probably acquired when the entire community was evacuated in the Great Siege (1779-1782) to Livorno, Italy.

 

 

 


Torah Finials, ca 1780 for Congregation Shaar Hashamayim

Courtesy Sotheby’s

 

 

In the manuscript section a remarkable Haggadah caught my eye.  The Hamburg Haggadah, written and illuminated by Eliezer Zussman Meseritch in 1829, is stunning on two counts.  First it is a highly unusual example of Jewish manuscript work in the 19th century when in Europe almost all Jewish books were printed, especially haggadot. That is not to mention that the scribe, Meseritch, was considered the “greatest Jewish calligrapher of the day,” and just a glance at the text one can see why.  Written in black and brown ink on fine parchment, the haggadah text is in square Hebrew letters, a commentary by Simeon ben Zemah Duran in Rashi script and finally the translation into German was written in mashket, the script of Yiddish and Judeo-German.  But it was four of the seven illuminations that stopped me in my tracks.  Illustrating the Four Sons, Meseritch created a totally new and uniquely “modern” approach to these characters.  Each son is depicted in front of a seder table labeled with his own designation:  Wise, Bad, Simple and Unable to Ask.  The father opposite him at the table has a haggadah open in dialogue with his son.  And each figure is different, illustrating his personality in pure body language, a kind of pantomime that psychologically engages the reader.  The Wise Son is bold and assertive in his knowledge, the Bad Son is violent, brandishing a stick defiantly, the Simple Son looks helpless, arms hanging at his side in innocence.  Finally the Son Who is Unable to Ask is quite confounded, scratching his head in bewilderment.  By their body language we have stepped into the psyche of each character.

 


Hamburg Haggadah (1829), scribe & artist Eliezer Zussman Meseritch

Courtesy Sotheby’s

 

 

Finally, lets take a look at that Chagall I rushed past when I first walked into the exhibition.  Titled Moses and the Golden Calf this 9 ½ x 13 inch oil on canvas was painted when Chagall was over 90 years old (he lived to be 98).  Remarkable in and of itself, a close examination yields considerable insight into this dramatic and pivotal episode.  The first thing we notice is that the calf is not golden at all; rather it is a pulsating red, unifying the mass of red figures wildly dancing around it.  The entire side of the painting is characterized by that red, etched in black outlined figures, hands held high in fervent worship and overseen by an angry red sun.  In stark contrast the right side is black, gray and white, a stern Moses holding the luchos, encased in the grim drama on the verge of smashing God’s handiwork.  At the bottom the prone figure of Joshua rests.  The contrast could not be greater between sinners and the stern lawgiver.  That is in itself not particularly unusual in such depictions.  What is extraordinary is the butterfly-like angel hovering between them.  Still over the dancers, he is gesturing towards Moses.  Totally non-textual, the angel is pure invention on the part of Chagall, perhaps attempting to plead for mercy for the errant Jewish people.  His presence changes our understanding of the narrative, leading us to reconsider Moses’ angry response as one tempered by mercy.  True, he smashed the Tablets, yet these stones could be re-created.  And while he executed 3,000 of the sinners, he spared the vast majority of the people.  Whatever its meaning, it is a vibrant, exciting and unique Chagall of Moses and the Golden Calf.

 


Moses and the Golden Calf (1980), oil on canvas (9×13) by Marc Chagall

Courtesy Sotheby’s

 

These are just a sampling of the 293 works of art, Judaica, books and manuscripts offered for sale at Sotheby’s this year.  It was breathtaking and I strongly suggest taking it in at next year’s Sotheby’s exhibition and sale of Judaica and Israeli and International Jewish Art.  Who knows what we might discover?


 

Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com

Wandering In Paint, Wondering In Paint. Bamidbar At The Mercer Gallery

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2005

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: mwecker@gmail.com.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/wandering-in-paint-wondering-in-paint-bamidbar-at-the-mercer-gallery/2005/03/23/

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