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April 18, 2014 / 18 Nisan, 5774
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘Jewish Art Salon’

A Jewish Art Salon Exhibit

Thursday, November 11th, 2010

Seduced by the Sacred: Forging a New Jewish Art

Oct. 3 – Nov. 22, 2010

Mandell JCC (West Hartford) and Charter Oak Cultural Center, Hartford, Conn.

Curated by Richard McBee and Joel Silverstein




In many ways, it should be a no-brainer for readers of The Jewish Press to make the decision to visit the latest Jewish Art Salon exhibit, Seduced by the Sacred, or, if the trek to Hartford is prohibitive, to immerse themselves in the works online. After all, most readers of this publication are surely already seduced by the sacred – however problematic the definition of both terms may be – and, particularly if they are regular readers of this column, they will be intrigued by the question of new Jewish art.


In other ways, however, readers of The Jewish Press might be overqualified for Seduced by the Sacred, and the target (or at least ideal) audience for the show may be people who are less engaged with the usual suspects of Jewish art. Jewish art aficionados will already be aware of many of the show’s participants – Archie Rand, Tobi Kahn, Mark Podwal, Richard McBee, John Bradford, Siona Benjamin and others – and the notion of this art being new is perhaps a bit outdated.


But the show, which the curators say covers a “new generation of Jewish artists [who] came of age after the 1970s and craved more authentic religious and cultural experiences,” is vital for those who are not as familiar with Jewish art. One just wishes the catalog provided slightly more guidance for this audience in how to interpret the unique terminology and set of themes and symbols inherent in contemporary Jewish art.


“The very nature of the sacred; [sic] beyond proof and rationality, immutable, intractable, once again became desirable and easily connected to the entire history of Judaism,” write the curators, singling out Christian, Buddhist and Hindu artists as creators of religious art that is ritual-based. “Christian art had fixed iconography and history; Jewish art reveled in its own indeterminability. An invisible God and the space of encounter invite radical re-understandings of texts and images.”


There have been radical re-readings of Jewish texts and Jewish artists have had to grapple with a semi-visible God (the artists of Dura Europos, and the creators of many Haggadot, have managed to envision God’s hands), but the comparison between Jewish and Christian art is a bit simplistic. Surely some of the iconography Christian artists had “fixed” was based on prior works of art fixed by Jewish artists, and the early visual history of both religious traditions was typified as much by its connectedness and mutual borrowing as it was by its differences.


One also wonders why the curators’ statement entirely neglects Islamic visual traditions, though there is certainly a strong element of Islamic architecture in one work in the show, Mark Podwal’s etching, “Jerusalem as the Crown of the Torah” (1984).


Mark Podwal. “Jerusalem as the Crown of the Torah.” 1984.

Etching on paper. 8 1/4 x 5 3/8 inches



Podwal takes the term keter Torah (crown of the Torah) literally, and portrays Jerusalem as the ornament on the top of a Torah scroll (of the Ashkenazi variety). On the top of the crown (which also mirrors the primary position of keter on the Kabbalistic model of the Sephirot) is the Dome of the Rock. Where some Jewish artists try to mask the dome and to emphasize the Western Wall, Podwal gives the Islamic shrine a central position, and the minaret and some trees framing the mosque mirror the pillars flanking the Ten Commandments on the Torah ornament and the handles underneath the Torah. Podwal has formally created a double spine that props the work up, which combines Jewish and Islamic visual elements.


Natan Nuchi’s 2005 ink on cotton drawing, “Untitled,” gives new meaning to the expression giving the finger. Thousands of fingers of different sizes and shapes are arranged throughout the 104 inch squared drawing. Some are arranged in rows like battalions of soldier, while others overlap each other in poses that could be aggressive, erotic, comforting or friendly. Richard McBee has written often in these pages on the connection between Nuchi’s fingers and his Holocaust subject matter, and there is certainly something eerie about the amputated fingers.



Natan Nuchi. “Untitled.” 2005. Ink on cotton. 104 x 104 inches



The forms in Nuchi’s drawing echoe those of Renata Stein’s “Gateway to Heaven”  (1994). But the rest of the works in the show mostly seem unconnected to each other. Though the curators explain that the show uses the song Lecha Dodi (“Go my beloved”) as a “paradigm for Jewish artists who are willing to encounter experiences greater than themselves,” the only work that seems to respond to the paradigm is David Wander’s 2010 acrylic on paper painting, “Come My Beloved” (the usual translation of Lecha is “come,” though I argue “go” is more appropriate).


One work (which doesn’t address the Shabbat service introductory song) is Janet Shafner’s “The Daughters of Zelophehad” (2006). Machla, Noa, Hagla, Milka and Tirtza, the five sisters who appear in Numbers 26, 27 and 36, as well as Joshua 17 and 1 Chronicles 7, made names for themselves by requesting to inherit their father’s portion of land in Israel after his death because he had no sons.  Shafner depicts the five in classical attire in a landscape worthy of Dali. A circle of boulders sits at their feet, and a field of red (evoking lava) in the background sets four of the sisters forward in space.


“The Daughters of Zelophehad.” 2006. Oil on canvas. 48 x 84 inches



According to the artist’s website, the daughters are depicted as “sentinel figures” and are “set against a panorama of walls – ancient and modern, including the politically charged contemporary wall between Israel and her Arab neighbors.” Written upon the red field is the text from the biblical narrative.


After reading the biblical texts about the five sisters, one is left with a number of questions about the women. When they approached Moses, did they all pose the question together, or was there a ringleader and four shyer sisters? Were they the epitome of politeness, or were they combative? Did they feel entitled or were they pessimistic about their chances?


In Shafner’s vision of the episode, the sisters are animated and they assume active poses. Although the artist calls her own figures sentinels, they appear to me to assume offensive, rather than defensive postures. As they stand on a controversial boundary between Israeli and Palestinian territories, these women reach out to each other and stretch their hands out over the land. Most confidently stand up straight, and the one who crouches seems ready to pounce. If the show is mostly about the passive Shabbat queen of Lecha Dodi, these are enterprising and entrepreneurial women. At a contemporary political crossroads, they cannot help but exude possibility and potential.


Shafner’s figures work so well, because they are strong as individuals and as a team. Seduced by the Sacred is perhaps not as powerful a cohesive group of pieces, but it certainly has some individual stars that deserve recognition.


Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

Feminist Trends At The Jewish Art Salon

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

Tzelem: Likeness and Presence in Jewish Art

April 26 – May 17, 2009

Stanton Street Synagogue

180 Stanton Street, New York




It was a little surreal sitting in the sanctuary of the Stanton Street Synagogue at the opening of the Jewish Art Salon exhibit. It was hard not to notice the sharp contrast between the synagogue’s tragically decaying collection of Zodiac signs painted on its walls and its dusty interior – some parts of which might still bear original grime dating back to 1913 when the synagogue was built – and the vibrant new art created by the 29 artists affiliated with the salon (including both the authors of this column). And then it turned out that two of the speakers, Archie Rand and Richard McBee, shared a common Jewish art experience: each told the assembled crowd of nearly 75 that he had received a ruling directly from Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, zt”l (1895 – 1986) encouraging him to paint without fear of violating the Second Commandment.


I did not speak up, but my father received smicha, rabbinic ordination, from Rav Moshe, and when I read one of the great rabbi’s decisions prohibiting elementary school instructors from teaching their students to draw lest they learn to illustrate the celestial bodies and come to violate the Second Commandment, I asked my father how he could have allowed me to draw. On a trip to New York, he approached Rabbi Dovid Feinstein, Rav Moshe’s son, at his Lower East Side yeshiva, Mesivta Tiferes Yerushalayim, and was told that it was permissible for me to draw. Even representational art was allowed, as my father presented Rav Dovid with one of my pen-and-ink drawings of Rav Moshe, which and as far as my father knows, Rav Dovid has kept. 


It takes a group of people obsessed with Jewish art congregating in an illuminated synagogue to tease out these sorts of connections. But what, if anything, can the Jewish Art Salon reveal about emerging trends in Jewish art?


Identifying trends in exhibits is a difficult endeavor. Reporters often tout movements of more painting or more sculpture at Whitney Biennials, but in my experience, the shows tend to be similarly organized as parking lots of works that are disjointed rather than unified. Trends have a way of popping up just about anywhere when one insists on looking for them. Yet, it seems significant to me that not only were a majority of the artists exhibiting in the salon women, but many of the works in the show could be said to have feminist content or themes.




Archie Rand. “Ruth (For Kitaj).” Acrylic on fabric. 2002



Archie Rand’s Ruth, (For Kitaj) references the late Jewish painter R. B. Kitaj (1932 – 2007). Rand represents Ruth the Moabitess as a red-headed woman wearing an ochre blazer and purple pants, and carrying a purple backpack (presumably for gathering Boaz’s grain). The blond-haired Boaz, clad in blue jeans and a lime-green blazer, and bearing an orange backpack (he is also harvesting his grain), approaches from behind, and speaks (via cartoon bubble) in Hebrew from Ruth 2: 8, “Have you heard, my daughter? Do not go to gather (grain) in any other field.” Never mind that Rand situates the scene in a field that seems better equipped as the set design of a horror film than for growing grain. Despite modernizing the costumes and the architecture of the houses in the background, Rand has remained true to the encounter between the two characters.  A literal reading of the text of the Book of Ruth may leave readers with a picture of an older man protecting and ultimately marrying a much younger widow.  However, Rand has empowered Ruth by representing Boaz as a younger man who stands off to the side, while Ruth occupies a prominent position in the middle of the canvas, and wears an expression on her face that surely conveys a mixture of pain and alienation on the one hand (she lost a husband and a people), and anticipation on the other (of her newfound faith and people, and husband-to-be).



Deborah Rosenthal. “Either/Or: Autumn Adam and Eve.” Oil on linen. 41″x31″. 1997-9



            Deborah Rosenthal’s Adam and Eve employs a different sort of strategy. Where Rand makes Ruth prominent by placing her in a central position – after all she is the  heroine of her own story, evidenced by the book bearing her name – Rosenthal’s painting blurs the boundary of where Adam ends and Eve begins, and vice versa. Somewhere in the composition the Tree of Knowledge also stands, and it may have sprouted wings worthy of a demon, or perhaps Satan disguised as a serpent. Rosenthal’s colors and forms are so visually seductive that it is easy to fall in love with the painting’s movement and to temporarily lose sight of the literal content of the work. Stanley Fish argued in his book Surprised by Sin that readers of John Milton’s Paradise Lost underwent a parallel journey to Adam’s. Just as Adam was tempted, sinned, and then sought forgiveness, readers are lured to Satan’s charismatic character; they then realize their “sin” and seek clemency. The same process might be said of Rosenthal’s Adam and Eve. Just as Adam and Eve confused the proper boundaries in the Garden of Eden, surely with a little help from their serpentine friend, viewers experience a bit of the taste of the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge.



John Bradford. “Judah and Tamar.” Oil on canvas. 24″x36″. 2008



If Rosenthal can be said to blur the boundaries between figures, John Bradford’s Judah and Tamar turns the figures into geometric boundaries. This painting, which looks like a Piet Mondrian grid with an orange, green, and blue palette, abstracts the figures of Jacob’s fourth son and his daughter-in-law to the point that though visible, they blend into the grid. Though Tamar dresses in red (perhaps because she is impersonating a prostitute) and seems to summon Judah, the characters seem frozen in space, as immobile and monumental as the colored rectangles that surround them.



 Ita Aber. “Evolution 1.” Paint, appliqu?, quilt, and embroidery, 22″x24″. 2009



Ita Aber’s Evolution 1 at first looks like a series of circumscribed hearts – the sorts to grace notes passed between grade school girls in class, or pasted in instant messenger chat windows. Yet the work represents not a rosy, melodramatic worldview, but the horns (karnayim, the same word that gets mistranslated elsewhere leading to Moses being depicted with horns) that were attached to the corners of the altar in the Tabernacle. Aber’s red then is not a stand in for love, but the blood of the sacrifices. “The use of red refers to the sacrificial blood that was daily splashed on these horns, thereby effecting the atonement for sin,” according to the exhibit catalog by Richard McBee and Joel Silverstein. “Her work stands in dramatic tension with the Christian and popular image of a valentine.”


It may be a misuse of mathematic induction to argue for an emerging feminist trend in Jewish art at large, just due to representations of Ruth, Eve, and Tamar, and media generally identified with traditional women crafts being used to show the altar’s horns. On the other hand, though, as I have often pointed out to peers in my master’s courses in art history, despite the fact that many people point to religious communities as the epitome of conservatism and repression of progressive movements like feminism, it seems like religious artists and exhibits can usually be counted upon to be even more diverse and progressive than even the most activist secular galleries and museums.


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

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/arts//2009/05/13/

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