Archie Rand: Had Gadya
Hung March 10 – April 14, 2007
Bernice Steinbaum Gallery
3550 North Miami Avenue, Miami, Florida
Although Passover is no longer around the corner (11 months and counting until next year’s cleaning craze), Had Gadya remains a timeless song of Jewish persecution and triumph over generation after generation of anti-Semitism. But to Archie Rand’s brush, the song also somehow emerges as not only a deep meditation upon Jewish art history, but also feminism. In the 10th and final painting of his Had Gadya series, Rand casts G-d as female.
This move sounds controversial at first, but G-d, who of course belongs to no gender in the literal sense, is often referred to with feminine pronouns. Most notably, Kabbalistic thought stresses feminine aspects of G-d (creating, nurturing, and child-rearing), as in the feminine Hebrew word Shechinah, which refers to G-d’s presence.
But Rand always reminds me of James Joyce, in the sense that his work often contains so many layers of meaning and so many different collaged texts that the viewer who enters the work without a guide can hardly hope to uncover even a fraction of the content. Joyce once said, perhaps in jest, “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.” Rand’s work is not quite that presumptuous, but it does tend to throw a monkey wrench into many of my theories.
For example, in the painting of G-d, the work is titled, “And The Holy One, Blessed is He [ital. mine], Came,” which suggests G-d is male. The woman in the picture, who holds her hands up to the lit (Shabbos?) candles, recites, via cartoon bubble, the Aramaic words for the title, “Asah Hakadosh Barukh Hu.” Thus, if the woman is a He and is reciting a passage about G-d, surely she is not G-d herself, and perhaps instead, is the Shabbos Queen or simply, a woman lighting candles. And yet, in all of the other paintings in the series, the image depicts the primary player in that passage of song, so the final one ought to depict G-d.
The Holy One, 2006. Acrylic and enamel on vinyl.
I did not have a chance to see Rand’s series in Miami, but I’ve known about it for some time, having seen the works in Rand’s studio in Brooklyn. I also spoke about the series as part of a larger lecture on depictions of women in Hagaddah art at the I. Edward Kiev Judaica Collection at the Gelman Library at George Washington University last year. The “catalog” to the Miami show arrived in my mailbox recently, a set of slightly larger than postcard-sized reproductions of the 10 works, in a cardboard box that evokes a Streit’s matzah box. The red oval, which typically features the Streit’s brand, contained the name Archie Rand, and the information on the exhibit’s whereabouts replaced the words “matzahs” and “unsalted.” Sure enough, Rand’s catalog was certified Kof-K pareve, and it was manufactured under the supervision of Bernice Steinbaum and marked “For Passover Viewing and Beyond.” The whole enterprise is perhaps best described as a Purim shpiel take on Passover.
In the package, a single folded sheet of paper contains an essay on Rand’s work by Matthew Baigell, whose recent book on Jewish, American art was reviewed in these pages recently. Baigell, who is professor emeritus of art history at Rutgers University, provides the sort of reading guide for the works that one needs to engage Rand’s paintings (or Joyce’s Ulysses). To Baigell, Rand’s point of view “is not to duplicate the story line in pictures. Rather, he invents a parallel, visual universe that evokes aspects of the text and therefore in Talmudic fashion, invites the viewer to think about and to ruminate on the meaning of what is read and visualized.”
Baigell goes on to explain that Had Gadya explores the history of anti-Semitism and violence against Jews, whereby the goat represents the Jewish people; the cat stands in for the Assyrians; the dog, the Egyptian pharaohs; the stick, the Persians; the fire, Nebuchadnezzar; the water, the Persians (who allowed the temple to be rebuilt); the ox, the Greeks; the slaughterer, the Romans or Turks; and the angel of death, European medieval anti-Semitism. For each image, Rand incorporates paintings by other artists, which he uses to shed light on different aspects of the song.
Kid, 2006. Acrylic and enamel on vinyl.
For example, in “One Kid, One Kid,” Rand depicts a very unfortunate looking goat in the foreground, which looks like it might be an x-ray of a goat surrounded by a man holding a Torah scroll, and perhaps his son, who observes, via cartoon bubble, “Had Gadya.” The image, according to Baigell’s essay, derives from a work by Maurycy Gottlieb (Poland, 1856-1879). According to Baigell, the father and son in the work alternatively refer to G-d and Abraham, while the two zuzim used to purchase the goat perhaps refer to heaven and earth or Moses and Aaron. The image of a father and son studying Torah together (or at least embracing it in the literal sense) is very appropriate to the Seder, which carries, as a very important component, fomenting questions and dialogue between father and son (and presumably between mother and daughter, and all other parent-child permutations).
“And the Angel of Death Came” is perhaps clearer. Rand’s image shows a man with a top hat and long black cloak, cowering in the corner (with a yellow star on his left lapel) as an enormous hand (perhaps divine) points accusingly at him, and skull with flapping red, blue and yellow wings hovers just below the hand. The image derives from a Nazi poster, which Baigell observes, “implies a world turned upside down by European medieval and modern European anti-Semitism.” Surely the writers of Had Gadya could not have had the Holocaust in mind when they referred to the butcher and the angel of death, but Rand adds that context, which is very much in the spirit of the song.
Angel of Death, 2006. Acrylic and enamel on vinyl.
Another striking image from the series, “And the Dog Came,” shows a standing figure, admiring herself in a mirror, as a large, menacing dog hovers over her left shoulder. She looks as though she could be dressed for a Samurai duel, as a bubble emanating either from her or from the “god,” adds, “Asah Kalva.” The image is based upon a painting from the Qajar dynasty, which ruled over Persia from the late 17th into the mid-18th centuries. Thus, Rand depicts the character dressed to fit the ethnic and historical role she is meant to play.
Rand’s series succeeds, though, not so much for its great meditation on different aspects of Had Gadya (were he not a painter, Rand could easily be a philosopher, and indeed he is a teacher), but for his use of paint. Crimson is used in the whole series as a background color, which at once evokes blood and perhaps pain, and also lends the images the look of old photographs. Each work is “framed” in paint by a gold rectangle, and in each corner of the work, Rand has painted a gold circle with a red dot in the middle – perhaps an eye.
The works have a cartoony feel (I cannot help but think of “Beauty and the Beast,” and search for walking candlesticks and teacups when I look at “And the Water Came”), but of more importance, the series seems to me to lurk somewhere between a dream and reality, because of its coloration and style. And that has been, after all, the story of anti-Semitism and abuse of the Jewish people throughout the ages: How does one realize that one’s nightmares are reality, before it is too late?
Menachem Wecker is a painter, writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at email@example.com. His painting, “The Windows of Heaven,” will be on exhibit at the JCC of Greater Baltimore as part of an exhibit that closes on June 10.