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

Posts Tagged ‘Joel Silverstein’

The Amulet, The Temple, The Disfigured Book, and The Butterflies: The Art of Yona Verwer, Robert Kirschbaum, David Friedman, and Joel Silverstein

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

Tzelem: Likeness and Presence in Jewish Art

Hung May 17, 2009

Curated by Joel Silverstein and Richard McBee

Stanton Street Synagogue

180 Stanton Street, New York



Throughout the ages, synagogues have housed some of the greatest examples of Jewish art, including the mosaic floors at Bet Alpha and the frescoes at Dura-Europos. Unfortunately, the fate of the works of art has been inextricably tied to their host, and much great Jewish art has perished along with the synagogues whose walls, floors, and ceilings it adorned. Not only have natural disasters and the decay process claimed many synagogues, but also many times, they have been targeted specifically by anti-Semites who sought to destroy Jewish culture and life. If the synagogues cannot help protect their art, perhaps Jewish art can save synagogues. At least that is the premise of Yona Verwer’s two protection amulets, which hung at the recent Jewish Art Salon show at the Stanton Street Synagogue.


Verwer, president of the salon, created the works to celebrate the religious freedoms of America and to serve as talismans, in the Kabbalistic tradition, to ward off evil. Protection Amulet Stanton Shul 1 contains a variety of symbols – a Hamsa, the Statue of Liberty, a menorah, two elephants, two lions, and a Star of David. The star derives from a stained glass window bearing the same motif at the Stanton Street Synagogue, which is particularly in need of salvation (whether by amulet or by human intervention), as the rare murals of the Zodiac signs in its sanctuary are fading quickly.


Yona Verwer. “Temple Talismans: Stanton Shul Amulet I.”

40″ x 40″. Acrylic on canvas. 2009.



Art has often destroyed New York, particularly the Statue of Liberty, perhaps most famously in Planet of the Apes. “If you’re planning to depict an attack on New York City in a disaster film, you need to bring your A game,” wrote Tad Friend in The New Yorker in 2004, adding that N.Y.-based disaster films “inevitably” target the Statue of Liberty. Verwer reverses this trend and instead shows Liberty lighting a menorah.


The series reminds me of a project by Argentinean artist Dina Bursztyn called Gargoyles to Scare Developers. Bursztyn, whom I assisted for three years in an art immersion program through the Yeshiva University Museum’s education wing, drew from traditions of mythology to protect Manhattan neighborhoods. “Amazingly ugly, and thus also pretty scary to nondevelopers like me, these gawky masks belong to a long tradition of totemic objects used to ward off intruders,” wrote Benjamin Genocchio in a New York Times review in 2004. “Redolent with magic and mystery, they appeal to higher powers.” Verwer’s amulets do not try to frighten through ugliness, but they also use a tradition of magic and mystery for their activism.


Robert Kirschbaum’s Akeida #54 also draws from a Kabbalistic tradition, but in a very different sort of way. Kirschbaum, a professor of fine arts at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., focuses on the Jewish sense of space – specifically sacred space – in his work on the binding of Isaac. Akeida is a black-and-white print, which shows ten tic-tac-toe-like motifs, arranged in the configuration of the Sephirot. “Aware of our dispersion, I have found a need to contain my sense of the sacred center, and to carry a sacred space within the precincts of my imagination,” he says, adding that his art seeks “to reconcile the existence of tangible sanctified architectural elements in the home and in the synagogue with the broader significance of the Temple, its destruction and its mythic re-creation.”


Robert Kirschbaum. “Akedah, #54.” 36″ x 32″. Inkjet print.



In Mount Moriah, Kirschbaum notes, Jewish commentators have identified not only the Temple mount, but also a “trans-historical” location of sacrifices by Adam, Noah, and Abraham. Akeida blends several elements together to explore this space with multiple historical significances – Kabbalistic symbols, study of tectonics (structure) of Hebrew letters, and grids (which have been central in modern art). The precision of the geometric elements in the foreground seems to dissolve at some points into a more foggy background, which simultaneously evokes a ram’s head (the sacrifice that replaced Isaac?) and an angel beating its wings. The overall feel of the work reminds me of some of the Kabbalistic works of German artist Anselm Kiefer, but where Kiefer’s brushstrokes tend to be violent Expressionist ones, Kirschbaum balances the chaos with the geometric order.


If there is a bit of Kiefer’s flavor in Akeida, there is an overwhelming reference in David Friedman’s The Self Interpreting Bible. The title of the work derives from 18th century Scottish writer John Brown, whose Self Interpreting Bible was designed to aid non-scholars.  Friedman has provided his own interpretation of the bible, which from the looks of it involves stapling (some crosses) and carving out a person-shaped blood-red gash. Visiting this kind of injury to the codex was one of Kiefer’s major projects, which involved constructing not just lead books, but entire shelves of lead books.


David Friedman. “Self Interpreting Bible.” Mixed Media. 14″ x 20″.



Where Kiefer’s manipulation of the book might carry Holocaust or book-burning references in its inaccessibility and illegibility, Friedman’s book is changed for postmodern reasons. “While traditional Jewish texts such as the Talmud are rarely illustrated, these manuscripts often open with a printed image of a gate on the title page,” he says. “Much of my work is about being inside and outside of those gates, exploring the divided self and the state of being in-between; aspects of identity, time, memory, belief – between G-d and the gutter. To curse and bless at once.” Like Mark Podwal’s Sefer, which also hung in the show and presents an M.C. Escher-like optical illusion in which people walk through gate on a title page of a book, Friedman portrays a vision of Jewish books that transcends the physicality of the spine and the pages.


This kind of topsy-turvy approach also surfaces in Joel Silverstein’s Hail (A Plague of Butterflies). Where Exodus speaks of terrifying hail, which had “fire circumscribed within the hail” (Ex. 9: 24), Silverstein shows a purple, yellow, and orange landscape with a plague not of hail but of Monarch butterflies. In composing the piece, Silverstein was drawn to a photograph of the butterflies that he saw in National Geographic. Richard McBee reminded me of references to magical yellow moths in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, and in re-reading the book I found that the yellow moths indeed do present a plague of sorts. Either way, butterflies do not seem to be biblical (though there are several references to moths eating garments in Isaiah and Job), and they certainly did not rain down upon Egypt. Yet, Silverstein found a Midrash that says that the plague of Hail became a “flutter of colorful wings,” so why not butterflies? In this move, Silverstein is approaching the biblical text not just as a painter, but also as a biblical commentator.


Joel Silverstein. “Hail.” Acrylic on wood, 40″ x 40″.



In my previous column, I cited what I see as feminist trends in contemporary Jewish art, which surfaced in the Stanton Street Synagogue show. The four artists featured in this column have quite different approaches to very divergent subject material. But what seems to tie them together is their willingness to experiment with collage. Though a lot of deep thinking and careful techniques clearly informed the works, there is also a great playfulness in butterfly plagues and in amulets bearing American symbols to protect synagogues. 


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

Tzelem: Presence And Likeness In Jewish Art

Wednesday, May 6th, 2009

April 26-May 18, 2009

Stanton Street Synagogue180 Stanton Street, New York, N.Y.

Wed., Thurs., Sun., 12:00 – 6:00 p.m.

See JewishArtSalon.comfor calendar of panel discussions and events.


Jewish Art is a grass-roots movement whose time has come. It has evolved precisely because there are those who are moved by their Jewish heritage and wish to share this experience with the art world, the general public and the Jewish community. There has never been such an exciting time.

Many people see the concept of Jewish art as one of ethnic identity, as a branch of ethnic identity politics. This is true to a point. During the 1960s and ’70s, with the emergence of African-American Artists, Gays and the Women’s Movement, it was discovered by these participants that the American assimilationist paradigm of the mid-century was insufficient. In other words, there were some people that could not fit in, given their inherent difference from the White Anglo Male majority, despite its cultural assumptions of universality. Jewish Americans, many bent on their own brands of assimilation, took note. Some were in more than one camp. Take for example Judy Chicago; coming from a feminist point of view eventually addressed the Holocaust and her own Jewish identity in her work. A flowering of Jewish American culture followed in part because the limits of assimilation had been set.

But Jewish art is not simply an illustration of ethnic identity. It is also a visual art of no particular style based on Jewish ideas of religion, culture and philosophy. The same period, 1975, is usually dated as the death of High Modernism. The High Priests of New York High Modernism (you should pardon the pun) Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg were both Jewish, although their allegiance to the Jewish community was very conflicted. Rosenberg himself wrote on the possibility of a Jewish art based on a history of Jewish marginality with the mainstream culture. In other words, Judaism with its invisible G-d, functioning in renunciation of Greco-Roman inspired materialist civilization and its Formalism could in effect create an anti-art.


Judah and Tamar (2008), oil on canvas by John Bradford


Clement Greenberg’s relationship with Judaism was even more convoluted, even as he proved to be the most influential critic of his generation. His pronouncements of the visual as being separate from all other mental functions, making it, in effect, holy or sacrosanct and his prioritization of the abstract over the figurative can readily be perceived as a covert re-stating of the Second Commandment. “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or the earth below, or the waters under the earth.”

The cultural and social changes wrought by the 1970s and 1980s shifted interest to postmodern discourse. Most of the main players of this movement were Jewish with strong ties to Jewish thought and community. Walter Benjamin, the father of postmodernism, wrestled with Communism and the Kabbalah. His best friend, as is well documented, was Gershom Scholem, who introduced Kabbalistic ideas into modern Western thought. Emanuel Levinas was a Talmudic scholar; Jacques Derrida was a Sephardic Jew who co-authored a book on religion and referred to himself as “Reb Derissa” and so on. It is not circumstantial that these men were Jews. Rather their reliance on semiotics, acronyms and Deconstruction reflects a strong Talmudic character as written about by Susan Handleman, Geoffrey Hartman, Steven Schwartzchild, Martin Jay and others.

What does this mean for the average Jewish artist? It has become much more comfortable to espouse hard-core Jewish ideas. If Madonna can call herself Esther, and Oprah Winfrey can discuss “The Other” in the context of social action, then these inherently Jewish ideas have reached a mainstream audience as well as transformed the landscape of academia.

If Jews in the field of the visual arts have frankly lagged behind other ethnic groups in espousing cohesion, pride and identification in being Jewish, it should be remembered that we are introducing a difficult concept for the secular art world to accept. We are re-introducing religious ideas onto Modern Art as a possible inspiration, something that has not been readily accepted since the mid 19th century. After all, Romantic and Modern Art were supposed to replace religion entirely. Yet many artists who were not born to religious backgrounds were nonetheless drawn to what Arthur Danto has called “The Jewish Sublime” to be pursued through traditional forms of Jewish study.


Creation XI (1987), silverpoint, gold leaf, acrylic on paper by Susan Schwalb


It is an exciting concept to believe that Jewish religion and spirituality can be extracted from the contemporary assumption that all religious thought is politically conservative, inherently retrograde and worthy of derision or forbidden as a source of creative art. We are, in effect, changing the rules as to what is aesthetically acceptable.  Whether or not this is universally accepted or adopted is beside the point. It is exciting precisely because we are changing the discourse.

The concept of this exhibition, Tzelem: Likeness and Presence in Jewish Art comes from the book of Genesis 1:27.In it, G-d creates man according to his own image. The words tzelem, demuth and temuna are all used for this concept.  The rabbis, including Rashi, were ever cognizant to keep G-d transcendent, and understood that likeness does not mean simple visual correspondence as it did for the Greeks. What developed was opaque, layered and deeply Jewish. They assumed that likeness equals intelligence and the inherent quality to do good, much like the Creator. While the Greeks postulated a model of Mimesis readily employed in Western Art for 1,800 years, Jews tied vision to concepts of moral judgment and the matrix of language, not unlike postmodern thought. One of the reasons that Christian philosophers could marginalize Jewish thought and the Jewish advent into European art during the 19th century was to demean the Jewish links to Linguistic Philosophy. By this, I mean the Jewish system of textual analysis found in Torah, Talmud and Kabbalah known as hermeneutics or exegesis. In the anti-Semitic mind, Jewish thought was not tied to experience at all, just to words.  They believed that Jews never built or created anything new or original. See Kalman P. Bland’s excellent book “The Artless Jew” and Susan Handleman’s The Slayers of Moses.

Often evoked by Jews and non-Jews alike as the Ur source material for Jewish Art, the Second Commandment is restated twice, once in Exodus 20 and again with variations in Deuteronomy 5 and 9. The issue of limiting or destroying all representation is actually a false conundrum here, as the real issue in the text is one of foreign or false worship to other gods. It has always been evident even under the strictest rabbinical conditions that the Second Commandment is determined by context and community and has been applied liberally or conservatively as the community sees fit. It has never been a categorical call, favoring the ear and suppressing the eye, as some would have it.


Children (2008), oil on canvas and collage by Diana Kurz


In this regard, the idea of Tzelem presents a Jewish model for vision, one worth exploring in contemporary art. It brings up myriad issues regarding the levels of representation or its subsequent renunciation. Jewish thinkers often seek to limit, deform or skew the notion of visual truthfulness, or verism in art. The Code of Jewish Law, The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch does not allow the drawing of a man, especially of a face “unless it is slightly disfigured.”  Deforming visual correspondence might superficially suggest abstraction, but in actuality opens the door to all styles and concepts of art, as all discourse is seen as a multivalent language originating within the creator.

This language is structured as a prioritized narrative (The Torah) with its subsequent interpretations. Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg writing in Genesis; The Beginning of Desire quotes the Netziv of Volozhin, author of Ha’amek Davar, who translates “to fulfill, to obey” the Torah is to construct the meaning of the words of the Torah. Zornberg concludes that the making of the Torah in the reader’s mind assumes a contemporary understanding of the active process of perception or, to take it further; vision, like reading is a fundamentally interpretive process.

Participating Artists: Ita Aber, Siona Benjamin, Suzanne Benton, John Bradford, Shoshannah Brombacher, Lynda Caspe, Raphael Eisenberg, David Friedman, Tobi Kahn, Rachel Kanter, Tine Kindermann, Robert Kirschbaum, Diana Kurz, Richard McBee, Jill Nathanson, Mark Podwal, Archie Rand, Deborah Rosenthal, Susan Schwalb, Janet Shafner, Joel Silverstein, Adele Shtern, Jack Silberman, Mierle Ukeles, Yona Verwer, David Wander, Menachem Wecker, Laurie Wohl.

In weeks to come, we hope to analyze individual works of some of the artists in this truly landmark exhibition.

Joel Silverstein is an artist, critic and teacher and co-curator with Richard McBee of Tzelem: Presence and Likeness in Jewish Art.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/arts//2009/05/06/

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