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April 19, 2014 / 19 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Greater Baltimore’

Jewish Women Artists Talk About Their Work (Part Five)

Wednesday, April 18th, 2007

          For the past four weeks, this column has attended to the exhibit “Words Within” of works by members of the Jewish Women Artist’s Network at the Columbia/Barnard Hillel (through March 28). In part five, three more artists discuss their work as Jewish women artists.



Permission To Use Hebrew Letters


         When Marilyn Banner showed “some rather radical and ‘unpalatable’ work” in D.C. (she lives in Maryland), she shocked her viewers and had to “clean up [her] act.” She remembers people responding with an “underlying anti-Semitism, as if the work had been done by a ‘dirty Jewish woman artist’.”


         But with her work currently on exhibit in three different “Jewish” venues, Banner not only identifies as a Jew, a female and an artist, but at the moment, she is feeling “very much like a Jewish woman artist.”


         Over the past two decades, Banner never gave much thought to Jewish culture or heritage, she told The Jewish Press. “I cut Hebrew letters out of steel because I responded so strongly to them,” she said, “not reading or understanding them, and having no Jewish education.” She created a piece, “The Presence of Spirit,” sensing “the sacredness of the letters and their healing qualities.” She worked with the concept of skin, without considering the Holocaust and skin lampshades, and she made “Soul Ladders” from a “Shamanic point of view, without thinking of Jacob’s ladder at all!” The only Jewish works she created were the works she made based on a trip to Terezin titled “Still With Us,” “Angels and Messengers” and “Song of Songs,” and another called “Presence of Spirit.”


         Another body of work, “Ladders of Light,” carried “a strong sense of being female, with an insistence on being able to be openly female,” using lace, chiffon and ribbon, and an idea of “play” she returned to in a series “Honoring the Ancestors.” The series was based upon Banner’s upbringing in a “Jewish neighborhood of six family apartments in St. Louis in the late 40′s and early 50′s.”


         As a graduate student at Queens College, a panel of men expelled Banner “for being less than ‘serious’ − using mixed media before it was popular (sewing canvas onto canvas),” she says. “I was told that I should therefore ‘go have babies and teach grade school’.” And as recently as a few weeks ago, she experienced anti-Semitism toward her Musica Viva card with Hebrew letters, which “shocked many people, including some of our board members and musicians, who did not want to handle the cards and did not want the usual extra number to share with friends.”


         But after passing out the same cards at the exhibit at the JCC of Greater Baltimore (where I met Marilyn, as I am also showing a painting in the exhibit), she found the audience much more receptive, “pleased and affirmed, not frightened and shocked.”


         She describes “owning [her] femaleness” as empowering to create more personal work, with “feminine” materials, and a “sensuous” approach. “I am not trying to be a male artist. I don’t want to see like Cezanne or paint like Picasso,” she insists. “Owning my Jewishness has given me the ‘permission’ to use Hebrew letters, Jewish symbols and to be proud of my Eastern European heritage.”



Lips of Crimson Silk by Marilyn Banner. Encaustic, 2004



         Song of Songs influences her piece in “Words Within,” titled “Lips of Crimson Silk” and, indeed, it quotes from the text, translated by Marcia Falk:


Yes, I am black! And radiant -

O city women watching me -

As black as Kedar’s goat-hair tents

Or Solomon’s fine tapestries.

Your teeth -

A flock of sheep

Rising from the stream

In twos, each with its twin

Your lips -

Like woven threads

Of crimson silk.


         Indeed, to viewers who are not familiar with the technique of “encaustic,” the work looks like a bright, colorful painting, perhaps with a hint of Matisse’s style (although surely Banner would insist she is not trying to paint like a man!). But the work is not only a piece about love, it is quite an intense labor of love, using a technique that involves layers of hot wax, into which Banner scratches and scrapes and otherwise manipulates the surface. The technique quite literally involves the “form following the textual content.”


Healing the World


         Rona Lesser of Houston, Texas, draws from Kabbalah in her work, especially, “Sacred Fragments,” her submission to “Words Within.” The piece is based upon the notion tikkun olam, literally repairing the world. Although she notes that this concept of fixing is universal rather than Jewish, her statement in the catalog describes the concept of shevirat ha-kelim (“the shattering of the vessels”), whereby G‑d stored divine sparks inside “vessels” which allowed for the “retraction” of the divine so as to create space for a physical universe. “It is up to us, G‑d’s creations and partners, to heal the world through our actions and gather those sparks together until the vessel, or the universe, is whole again,” Lesser writes. The painting includes Hebrew words signifying the sorts of good acts and traits that can re-gather the sparks, including: emet (truth), chessed (kindness), rachamim (mercy), kedushah (holiness) and a number of others.



Sacred Fragments by Rona Lesser. Watercolor, 2004



         The image also shows two hands, which appear to gather the words as they pop out of a bursting shape (evoking Adolph Gottlieb’s paintings), perhaps the breaking vessels. A tree (the Tree of Life?) stands barrenly below, but if the hands represent the divine and the human partnering in creation, the tree is sure to blossom soon.


         In an interview, Lesser said she did not consider herself a Jewish artist, since many of her pieces do not employ Jewish themes. But “Judaism is an important part of my life and influences how I respond to the world around me,” she said. “When I paint something from nature I definitely think of G‑d’s creations.”


The Pull of Judaism


         “Everything I do reflects me, being a Jewish woman artist,” says New York-based Francia, “me, in the world and my responses to where I am − in this case, years of traveling and my responses to places.”


         Her artist book in “Words Within,” titled “Travelogue: Color and Light” responds to travel, particularly in Switzerland and Italy, where she spent many summers in the Jura Mountains of French Switzerland as co-director of a jazz and art program. Not surprisingly, she found the small Jewish community there “quite a contrast to living New York City with such a large Jewish population.”



Travelogue: Color and Light by Francia. Artist book, 2005


         Francia started the Jewish Women Artist Network at a 1991 annual conference of the Women’s Caucus for Art/College Art Association in Washington, D.C. She also organized the first Jewish panel, “Judaism and How It Is Reflected In Your Art and Life,” hoping to give a platform to the voices of Jewish Women in the WCA.


         “I identify both as a Jewish woman artist and a woman artist,” she says, “because Judaism is a very important part of my life − who I am and my vision of the world, how I live my life and, of course, I am always proudly a woman.”


         Her series, “Personal Visions: Art and History Meet,” is a vision of the Jewish Ghetto in Venice. The series culminated with a “six-foot Kaddish installation adorned by maroon velvet, draped on a table − with six memorial candles placed on the table . . .” Her book “Travelogue” draws upon the architecture, design, landscapes, clocks, old instruments, medieval villages and maps, and old synagogues from her travels. “I believe the pull of Judaism is so strong that it is always there in your life either blatantly or subtly,” she says.


       Menachem Wecker is a painter, writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. His painting, “The Windows of Heaven” will be on exhibit at the JCC of Greater Baltimore as part of an exhibit which opened March 25.

Does Being Jewish, American And An Artist… A Jewish-American Artist Make?

Wednesday, March 14th, 2007

Jewish Art in America: An Introduction

By Matthew Baigell

Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2006





         Was Rembrandt a Jewish artist because he painted the Jewish wedding? Can Chagall’s paintings based on icons of other faiths be considered Jewish art? Should Max Jacob’s work be considered Jewish, in light of his conversion to Catholicism?


         These are all tough questions, without easy answers. As I write this wearing the hat of an art critic, I am tempted to set out a foundation for a Jewish art that sidesteps the questions of the artist’s faith and the content of the paintings. At least in theory, Rembrandt the non-Jew should have been able to mix a Jewish color if he went about it correctly. Even if Max Jacob did convert out of Judaism (and that is a big if), there ought to be enough vestigial elements of his Judaism left in him with which he could impart aesthetic form. But defining what those colors and forms might look like and what their nature is – aside from the “you will know it when you see it” argument – remains problematic.


         Matthew Baigell, who refers to himself as a historian of Jewish art who does not shy away from difficult questions, tackles these sorts of problematic definitions in his new book, Jewish Art in America: An Introduction.


         Although in the preface to the book Baigell calls the project a survey of Jewish art in America, he explains in his introduction that he finds nothing particularly Jewish about Jewish art, and recognizes no such thing as the “Jewish experience.”


“After,” by Richard McBee. Oil on canvas, 2002.


         “People cling to the notion that there is something Jewish about Jewish art, perhaps because they either consciously or unconsciously want to think that there is something special about being Jewish,” Baigell told The Jewish Press. “Even if they are not observant, they want to associate with a ‘special’ or ‘chosen’ group. It allows them a certain elevated identity. There is Jewish subject matter, but not Jewish art.”


         Baigell’s rejection of the term “Jewish” art in an introduction to a book on Jewish art might strike some readers as bizarre and sloppy. But even if he does reject the notion of Jewish art, Baigell’s book is full of Jewish Americans who make art. He cites several artists, critics and historians who do espouse such a view, like artists Peter Krasnow, who said, “Jewish art is a Jewish subject, by a Jewish artist, acquired by a Jewish collector,” and R. B. Kitaj, who insisted, “I believe my art is Jewish if I say it is.”


         Krasnow and Kitaj’s attempts to define Jewish art are not historical determinations, so much as personal efforts at identification. Baigell sees these identifications as possible, particularly in America, where Jewish painters confronted a situation where their choices “were entirely personal. All Jews could become, in effect, Jews by choice.” Within this context, Baigell swaps the vague question of what is Jewish about Jewish art, with a more specific one: “Why do many artists want to identify as Jewish and why do they choose to express Jewish experiences in their work?”


Book Cover, “Jewish Art in America.



         I will not even try to recap the many artists that Baigell addresses in his book. All readers of this column are clearly interested in Jewish art, and Baigell’s book is a must-read. His tale begins in the 17th century and carries straight through to contemporary art, including many artists whose work Richard McBee and I have covered in these pages. In fact, Baigell devotes a good amount of time to McBee’s art, which seems particularly relevant to this column.


         In the chapter, “The 1970s and After, Representative Figures,” Baigell refers to McBee, whom he calls “as sophisticated as [David] Newman in the history of recent art.” In a discussion of McBee’s “After” (pictured), Baigell observes, “McBee not only questions explicitly how Abraham in biblical clothes can reach out to Isaac dressed in modern slacks, but also he implicitly addresses the issues Isaac might have with the Jewish G-d as a G-d of terror and unknowability, with his (and our) relationship to G-d which might or might not be a happy one, and beyond that with the notion of where was G-d during the Holocaust.”


         Baigell further suggests viewing McBee’s painting as an exploration of an episode, which is “both an ancient and modern theme worth continued exploration for its complexities, its disjunctions, and its varying points of view, an appropriate postmodern subject, and, more importantly, a way to construct his own personal and religious identity.”


         To me, “After” does not only show the lack of communication between Abraham and Isaac and the after-the-storm view of the Akeidah - the text offers no hints of what conversation could have transpired between father and son after the near sacrifice – but it also shows a choreographed scene, set design and all, of how the tale might have transpired. In McBee’s view, Isaac has turned his back on Abraham (is he too furious to look his father in the eye? Too scared? Too confused?), and he looks back over his shoulder at Abraham’s beckoning hand. Isaac’s pants look baggy (almost “gangster” like, to use contemporary pop culture jargon) and rebellious, as Abraham is dressed in more classy, if not princely, attire. McBee has even charged the space separating the two characters with a flurry of ochre, white and black brushstrokes. If father and son are to reconcile their differences, they must fight their way through those chaotic and hazardous brushstrokes.



Matthew Baigell


         McBee’s examination of biblical texts through a contemporary lens typifies the post-1970′s period in Baigell’s book. I asked him by e-mail what he saw on the horizon for Jewish artists, who might soon exchange their brushes for mouse pads.


         “I do not know how Jewish artists will respond to digital art,” Baigell admitted. “However, I think there might be a divide between those Jewish artists who find inspiration in the religion, in things intrinsic to Judaism, and those who maintain a secular attitude, those who find a sense of social justice in their Jewish heritage as if no other religion also has a sense of social justice, and create works extrinsic to Judaism. The latter artists pass on attitudes that can be found among people with good social values whatever their background. Jews have no exclusive claim to good social values.”


         But however much the latter group makes interesting work “concerned with issues of, say, assimilation and social justice” and “generational issues, important as these might be,” Baigell added, “I think the future of Jewish American art lies with those committed to creating works intrinsic to Judaism.”


        Menachem Wecker is a painter, writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. His painting, “The Windows of Heaven,” will be on exhibit at the JCC of Greater Baltimore as part of an exhibit opening March 25.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/does-being-jewish-american-and-an-artist-a-jewish-american-artist-make/2007/03/14/

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