web analytics
April 19, 2014 / 19 Nisan, 5774
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘Stanton Street Synagogue’

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

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

web.me.com/yvf/JewishArtSalon

 

 

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 Garc?a M?rquez’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.

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

http://web.me.com/yvf/JewishArtSalon

 

 

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/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: