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April 23, 2014 / 23 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Leah Ashkenazy’

Leah Ashkenazy: Jewish Artist

Friday, February 17th, 2012

We live in a wonderful time for Jewish art. The orthodoxy of 20th century High Modernism has given way to a chaotic but liberated postmodernism willing to try anything, even serious “ethnic” art. Jewish art can be done by anyone with a bit of gumption – just witness Anselm Kiefer’s 2010 exhibition “Next Year in Jerusalem.” And even though the commercial galleries generally still turn a blind eye, Jewish art by Jews is booming. More and more artists are coming out of the closet and admitting they have a genuine interest in Jewish subjects and ideas. This is evidenced by a least two national Jewish art groups: The Jewish Art Salon based in New York and the Jewish Art Initiative in Los Angeles. Scholar and author Matthew Baigell proclaimed last year in a lecture at the Jewish Museum that “we are in a Golden Age of Jewish Art.” And this renaissance has even penetrated Boro Park in the guise of a handful of frum artists including the tenacious Leah Ashkenazy, reviewed in these pages back in September 2001 and February 2006.

My Grandchildren (2010), oil on canvas by Leah Ashkenazy

Ashkenazy’s path to making art is typical of what are often called “outsider artists.” After a lifetime of doing something else (for her raising a family and earning a Masters in Literature from Brooklyn College), then, almost by chance, in 1997, she discovered that making paintings was her passion. Not surprisingly, the subjects she draws upon are her own life – growing up in Romania during the Second World War, the Holocaust, the gnawing tragedies of our time in Israel and around the world including 9/11 and, of course, her grandchildren. Ashkenazy sees the subjects of her art as either tzuris or grandchildren. Either way, it is always deeply Jewish.

Sbarro Pizzeria (2001), oil on canvas by Leah Ashkenazy

On August 9, 2001 a Palestinian terrorist blew himself up in the Sbarro Pizzeria at the corner of King George Street and Jaffa Road in Jerusalem. Fifteen Jews died including 8 children. 130 others were injured. In the devastated restaurant parents, infants, children and grandchildren died together. How could a Jewish artist, especially a grandmother, not react? Ashkenazy was one of the few who did that very year. Sbarro Pizzeria (2001) depicts a state of mind rather than a historical event. Blue lines create a three-dimensional grid that connects the viewer’s foreground with a scroll that spans the surface and the burnt sienna space beyond. In the center is a hinged object showing the time just before the bombing with a man about to enter a doorway. Above the scroll are 15 candles burning for the victims. Little figures are dotted across the scroll that reads only “Shema Yisroel.” The artist shows the painting accompanied by a text that enumerates our oppressors throughout history who wanted to exterminate us: “Today it is the nature of Ishmael who wishes to do the same. But with G-d’s help the result is always the same: Jews emerge to life and cannot be destroyed…The Torah is eternal, therefore so are the Jews.” It would seem the blue grid is the structure of Jewish life that will endure the tragedies of Jewish history. Today’s artists need to take note that contemporary Jewish history; its triumphs and tragedies as well, desperately needs our artistic reaction.

Spanish Inquisition – Voice of the Victims (2002), oil on canvas by Leah Ashkenazy

Jewish history is unfortunately rife with other examples, the Spanish Inquisition and Expulsion being a prime instance. Ashkenazy’s painting of the same name is subtitled: The Voice of the Victims (2003). She depicts an imagined stage with the curtain pulled back to reveal a mise en scene of Spanish Jewish history. There are four figures “on a golden stage” made up of dots of Jewish silver and gold. One is King Ferdinand, one is Queen Isabella and another is the despised Torquemada, Grand Inquisitor responsible for the deaths of many Jews burned at the stake and fanatical supporter of the mass expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Paradoxically the fourth figure, smaller than the others and dressed in an elaborate purple costume, is perhaps one of the prominent Jews in the Spanish court still hoping for a reprieve. The ensemble is surrounded by ghostly figures with red threads floating and connecting one another. They are the “voices of the victims,” they are the anonymous witnesses of Jewish history demanding to be heard.

Why is Ashkenazy so attracted as an artist to Jewish tragedy? My guess is that while the majority of her adult life was lived comfortably in Boro Park as a dutiful wife, mother and grandmother, her childhood was poisoned by the hatred of the Holocaust that howled around her. And as an artist, sensitive to the beauties of the world, her own childhood experiences force her to react to the sufferings of not only her own people but others too. An artistic sensitivity carries with it an awesome responsibility.

The Passion Of Leah Ashkenazy

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2006

“There is just something about that little girl that I can’t get out of my mind. How does she face those fire-breathing beasts?” Four-and-a-half years ago (September 7, 2001) I wrote about Leah Ashkenazy’s painting, “The End of Childhood” as a “complex commentary on the Shoah and how it affected the children who lived through it.” That review came out the week before the Twin Towers were attacked on September 11th. As a survivor of the Holocaust and now a witness to 9/11, Ashkenazy finds herself caught between two epochal events that changed our world. Nonetheless, her artistic vision is uncomfortable with these simple parameters. Rather, she is inexorably drawn to the many other tragedies that have blossomed between the war against the Jews and the war against the West. Her passionate nature finds the violent death of any child, the needless suffocation of any life, the fruits of any terror equally inimical to G-d’s image, in which we are all created. Her passion is not limited.


Ashkenazy’s images evoke highly-symbolic forms, a whole universe of that which continually stands for something lurking behind, always another meaning about to be born. “Remember and Rebuild, WTC” pictures a young couple; she with her matching blue shoes and handbag, he with a stylish shirt and sports jacket. They might be co-workers, husband and wife or just friends. They are encapsulated in a fiery shape surrounded by fallen trees and scattered branches. Above them the shattered pieces of a building, terrified little faces looking out, hover in a clear blue sky. That was the sky that morning, blue, clear and filled with death. A fallen woman in blue, covers her face as she cries, mourning the tragedy above. Ashkenazy asks us, “What was their sin? They went to work.”


The artist insists that the tragedy of injustice, terror and destruction happens far too often, all over. She paints images of the terrorist carnage in Bali, the devastation of the Tsunami and the attacks on 7/7 in London. The universal nature of tragedy strikes her as inescapable; it seems we all might someday become victims. Indeed a portrait of a woman that she titles “Crazy Mona Lisa,” after the classically mysterious Renaissance beauty by Leonardo Da Vinci, haunts us with a woman seated amidst blue flames and a nervous background, her modestly-covered head wrenched upside down. These paintings are from a world gone mad – a world all too familiar.


A Glimpse from Heaven” moves her work closest to a Magritte-like surrealism. A three-sided structure is pictured within the walls of a grey-bricked enclosure. Inside a dome sits as a tomb-like shape reminiscent of the Kever Rochel or, paradoxically, the dome of the Young Israel of Boro Park only a few blocks from her home. Outside this enclosure, a yellow tree shakes off its leaves in a funny shower of springtime blessing. Observing the whole scene, a little face peers down from the sky, perhaps the artist herself observing the constant clash between rebirth and the inevitability of the grave.


Remember and Rebuild: The Six Million” secures a ghastly link between the Twin Towers and the infamous smokestacks of death. Six tall structures, etched with long vertical lines reminiscent of the World Trade Center’s facades, stand in a distant orange field. Tiny faces mingle with smoke and fire erupting from the tops of the towers as the entire scene is observed by a mysterious man in light blue flanked by six children. The children are traditionally dressed, the young boys in caps, the girls in long frocks, all harkening back to the styles of Eastern Europe in the years between the wars. It is an unsettling image leading to question after question. Who are these children? If they are ghosts of lives lost in the Holocaust, pondering how little has changed, is the man then a parent who couldn’t protect them, a parent who is still determined to rebuild after the carnage?


Finally Ashkenazy depicts a troubling image of Jewish history, “Ghetto.” Tiny figures in a foreground of an enormous playing field are dwarfed by a sienna red structure, girders rising up in a fantastic superstructure that encloses the field and shuts out the city beyond. The city is vibrant with color – pinks, purples and pastels dominate. But the structure is simultaneously a border and a window into the world beyond. One wonders which is kept in and which is kept out. Is it us versus them, or can we live in one whole world harmoniously, albeit with a structure of borders to remind us of our differences?


Leah Ashkneazy’s paintings are never simple depictions. They always embed meaning within the pleasure of making and looking at art. Since they operate in the realm of visual poetry, constantly shifting metaphors and allusions, my interpretations may be entirely different from those of other viewers, indeed at odds with the intentions of the artist herself. In this kind of work, that dichotomy is natural, even expected. But one thing is certain; she paints passionately and urgently. Her subjects embrace mankind, violence, tragedy and the love we all experience. Her passion is as unlimited as the very air we breathe.


Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com





For further information contact: Leah Ashkenazy; 718 851 8660.


 


 



Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/the-passion-of-leah-ashkenazy/2006/02/22/

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