Paintings by Richard McBeeJanuary 18 – February 22, 2009The Chassidic Art Institute (CHAI)375 Kingston Avenue, Brooklyn, N.Y.718-774-9149, hours: 12-7 p.m.
Writing a biography of the biblical Sarah, whether in text or images, is about as easy as hunting tigers in Africa or helping Pooh chase Heffalumps and Woozles. Born Sarai, Sarah lived in her husband Abraham’s shadow. She was very attractive (as per Genesis 12:11) though barren, and seemed to have had a rebellious personality. She laughed when she was supposed to trust G-d, and even Abraham doubted the justice of her verdict to expel Hagar and Ishmael. But she silently watched Abraham identify her twice as his sister in hostile countries, about 120 miles apart, and each time she was nearly defiled by the monarch. And when Abraham set out to sacrifice her only son on a stone altar with a knife and a fire – she keeled over and never spoke (or breathed) again.
It is no wonder that painters throughout history have not even bothered with Sarah. The handful that did approach the topic only portrayed Abraham burying Sarah or the happy couple in Egypt, with Sarah standing off to the side as a supporting actress. It comes as a bit of a surprise then that Richard McBee has been obsessed with the Sarah stories for years. Not one to shy away from challenges, McBee not only tackles the Sarah stories, but he does so from Sarah’s perspective. Simply put, this is unprecedented.
Even if you are good at puzzles, you probably won’t guess that Sarah was the subject of “Sister Act.” The setting evokes the Emerald City from the Land of Oz. A man in a tuxedo at a balcony surveys a group of soldiers with bayonets and a Chassidic man hunched awkwardly to the side, perhaps swaying in prayer. A muscular man matter-of-factly places his hands on his hips as he glares at a human Jack-in-the-Box in the foreground, or more accurately, a Jill-in-the-Box.
Richard McBee. “Sister Act.” All images courtesy of the artist.
According to the Midrash, as told on Chabad’s website, Abraham, fleeing the famine back home in Canaan, finds his way to Egypt and hides his wife in a box so the border patrol does not abduct her. When the officials demanded taxes on the contents of the unopened box, Abraham agrees to pay the highest tax bracket (spices), which of course leads the suspicious Egyptian police to open the box and whisk Sarah (then Sarai) away to Pharaoh. McBee adapts the story in several important ways. Where Chabad claims the box was “large,” McBee’s small box adds insult to injury by requiring Sarai to uncomfortably fold herself in two, Pharaoh wears not Egyptian regal garments but cocktail attire, and Abraham wears a shtreimel instead of a turban.
The painting, which is on exhibit at the Chassidic Art Institute, is part of McBee’s newest series of paintings, which captures the story of Sarah. A second piece in the show is “Whip Angel.” Unlike the vulnerable Sarah of “Sister Act,” McBee’s “Whip Angel” finds the one tale where Sarah is empowered. Pharaoh, still clad in a tux with a bowtie, stands to the left in his penthouse apartment, as Sarah, reclining on a sofa on the high ground, directs an angel to whip the king. This follows another Midrash in which the angel, upon Sarah’s command, keeps Pharaoh from approaching Sarah. McBee’s Sarah seems only semi-comfortable with her newfound power. She holds her hand up to her heart simultaneously shocked and intrigued.
Richard McBee. “Whip Angel.”
Both “Sister Act” and “Whip Angel” are very complicated pieces. They clothe biblical characters in modern dress, plant them in contemporary scenes, and one includes the fantastical angel wielding a dangerous whip. It is easy to see how this sort of collage could look ridiculous, but McBee manages the unlikely combinations using the same sort of approach Chagall used to convincingly suspend bodies in the air without compromising their weight – keeping the interior spaces simple and carefully balanced. McBee’s biblical interpretations are theological and perhaps feminist triumphs, but those ideas succeed because the paintings work pictorially, first, and only then as texts.
The other works on exhibit at CHAI – which include several Sacrifices of Isaac (including “After the Akeida” which was the first of the series), Isaac blessing Jacob, several Exodus paintings, and Jacob’s dream – are a bit more straightforward than the Sarah series. One work, “God Passes By,” stands out.
Richard McBee. “After the Akeida.” 1991. 24 x 24.
The story derives from Exodus 33: 17-23 in which Moses asks to see G-d’s face. This is of course impossible for a living person to do, so G-d offers an alternative. Moses will stand in a rock crevice, and G-d will cover him with his palm and let Moses see his “back” as he passes by. I know of only one work that addresses this theme, a miniature by the Master of Alexander, c. 1430 in the collection of The Hague. The Alexander Master’s piece is dramatic, with Moses kneeling in front of a whirlwind.
Richard McBee. “God Passes By.” 2006. 18 x 24.
McBee’s painting, by comparison, is far less grand. It takes a while to even notice Moses, who is camouflaged with the rocks. G-d, of course, is nowhere to be seen, and he might have already left the scene, judging from Moses’ pensive mood. Since Moses looks out at the viewer, McBee has perhaps offered a G-d’s-eye view of the scene – another unique and controversial approach. And as in his Sarah paintings, McBee seeks psychological elements in the biblical tale rather than just telling the superficial story.
Searching for a voice for the disenfranchised requires a lot of guesswork and projection, of course. At its best, McBee’s series offers the artist’s attempts to “become” Sarah’s character – almost like the kind of conjecture an actor might undergo to perform the Sacrifice of Isaac. Even though he considers himself a feminist, McBee’s approach can hardly be anything but a masculine one, and yet he has clearly approached the subject, not only as a painter, but also as a scholar. Just as the rabbis of old sought to uncover the truths of the texts, even when that meant trying to understand biblical women, McBee’s series – with the benefit of modern, progressive eyes – is an effort in transcendence and open-mindedness. Presented with a single word from the text, McBee has created a hundred pictures.
Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at email@example.com. He is a painter and writer, and resides in Washington, D.C.