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

Posts Tagged ‘Tobi Kahn’

Rock-Hard Paintings

Wednesday, January 24th, 2007

MATERIA: Recent works on paper by New York artist Tobi Kahn


Through January 31, 2007


Works on Paper, Inc.


1611 Walnut Street, Mezzanine, Philadelphia


(215) 988-9999, http://www.worksonpaper.biz/


 


 


         The notion of a foreground and a background in a painting is an illusion. Painters use a variety of tricks to fool the viewer into thinking that pictorial space can contain real space, including perspective (objects higher up in the picture frame tend to be more distant) and palette (“warmer” colors are closer, “cooler” ones further). 

 

        Additionally, one of the many “problems” of painting is trying to show the space between objects. Air is formless and colorless, and the artist often has a hard time convincing the viewer in paint upon a flat surface that a certain amount of air separates two objects, and a different amount separates other objects.

 

 


“Kudoht (study#1A).” By Tobi Kahn. Acrylic on paper. 2006.

 

 

         Tobi Kahn’s Materia, which is inspired by rock formations, is a body of paintings that shows nothing but positive space. The works evoke aerial photographs (indeed Kahn is at work on a series of paintings based upon aerial views of Israel) and are so bold that they would probably work well in textile or clothing design.

 

         Kahn is no stranger to these pages and needs no introduction – only an update on his work since the last review. On June 28, 2006, Richard McBee observed, “Tobi Kahn’s ritual objects and mysterious paintings demand Jewish sensitivity without admitting their Jewish content,” and on February 2, 2005, he wrote, “Eschewing traditional Judaic form and symbol, Tobi Kahn is determined to eke out objects and images that bring each mitzvah into the present modern reality.”

 

 



“Nodeh (study).” By Tobi Kahn. Acrylic on paper. 2006.


 

 

         When the Jewish Museum acquired Kahn’s Saphyr, Omer Counter, McBee covered the “totally new form of omer counter [which] is a delightfully intriguing wall construction.” And on July 18, 2003, he reviewed Kahn’s Sky & Water series: “At once modern in its abstraction and postmodern in idiosyncratic naturalism, this assertive exhibition has deep links with Jewish meditation even as it champions a non-denominational spirituality.”

 

         Perhaps most ambitiously, McBee conceived of Kahn’s Microcosmos series as the very Talmud itself: “The tension of differences seen in the same text or image becomes a pathway to greater knowledge. This is the context in which to see the paintings of Tobi Kahn.”

 

         It seems that Kahn cannot touch anything without making it Jewish and art, and happily, he continues to produce more and more work. This is all the more remarkable, because his paintings involve many painstaking layers of paint, which makes the works’ surfaces – somewhere midway between cloudy and pasty – so fascinating. Kahn exhibits a thrill about his work, which ought to be standard fare for all serious artists, but is quite rare and refreshing. He is obsessed not only with Jewish art, but with Jewish artists, particularly the next generation of people interested in Jewish art, which he says did not exist when he was growing up.

 

 



“Yynah (study).” By Tobi Kahn. Acrylic on paper. 2006.


 


 

         And yet, Kahn’s current exhibit at Works on Paper in Philadelphia is arguably most relevant to Jewish art due to its departure therein. In his review of Kahn’s show, Edward J. Sozanski, art critic at The Philadelphia Inquirer, made a startling argument that Kahn’s work should be considered as Eastern, rather than Western, art. “Kahn’s paintings don’t look particularly Asian, yet their exquisite balance and quiet intensity make them as serenely contemplative as the calligraphy of a Zen master. The more one studies these paintings, the more one realizes how much craftsmanship contributes to that result.”

 

         Sozanski used the word “craftsmanship” twice in the review, which left Works on Paper owner Evan Slepian unhappy. Slepian told me he felt the references to craftsmanship downplayed the art, which he felt was so powerful that he was tempted to hang just two or three painting on each wall, “because they hold the wall.” In the press release, Slepian wrote, “Kahn’s new work, based on rock formations, exemplifies a meditative abstraction with the rich surface and sinuous line that are his distinctive signature.”

 

         The work in question is a rock formation study that began when Kahn, a Kohen, first visited a cemetery after his mother’s death. The funeral was in Israel, and Kahn lingered about the edge of the cemetery where his mother was buried, so as not to become impure. (Kohanim, or priests, are not permitted to be in cemeteries or to come in contact with other impurities.) For the first time, Kahn saw the stones mourners left behind on the graves to mark their visits, and he was so fascinated that he began working on a piece about rocks. He also gathered rocks from Maine, El Paso and Cape Cod (where he visited for exhibitions of his work). The body of work became Materia.

 

 

 

“Zahram (study).” By Tobi Kahn. Acrylic on paper. 2006.

 

 

         Both Zahram (study) and Nodeh (study) – all of Kahn’s titles are pseudo-Hebrew – evoke rivers. Zahram is a blue-gray and white painting that resembles a river with islands. Nodeh looks more like a meandering tributary, fighting its way around rocks and small hills. Upon close inspection, both paintings (and indeed all of Kahn’s paintings) reveal a great deal of variation in color and brushstrokes, which further lends the painting an aquatic feel.

 

         On the Works on Paper website, Slepian insightfully posted the paintings beside close-up shots of details from the paintings. Seeing those zoomed-in shots, the paintings appear to have a great deal of bold movement, and yet looking back at the original paintings, I am always struck by the serenity and balance in them. Kahn has achieved balance not by using inert and dull objects, but by setting each object in so much dynamic motion that they balance each other. This is perhaps the way they most closely resemble Zen thought.

 

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

Repossessing Faith: Objects Of The Spirit. By Toby Kahn

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2005

Imagine ritual without symbol. Impossible. The very heart and soul of Jewish ritual, from prayer to matzah, is the symbolic evocation of something else. Kiddush celebrates creation itself, Hanukah lights are symbolic of the miraculous oil, while a seder-plate is a litany of symbolic suffering and liberation. The list goes on and on throughout Jewish practice.

And yet, Tobi Kahn’s traveling exhibition and accompanying book, “Objects Of The Spirit: Ritual And The Art of Tobi Kahn,” has not one Jewish symbol, not one Star of David, Lion of Judah, or inspiring Hebrew phrase to direct our gaze symbolically. Rather, he fashions contemporary symbols deriving from the substance of his largely abstract forms that emphasizes the meaning of the mitzvah itself, evoked in deeply personal shapes and motifs. Eschewing traditional Judaic form and symbol, Tobi Kahn is determined to eke out objects and images that bring each mitzvah into the present modern reality.

Orah (1987) is an Aron Kodesh (Holy Ark) made especially for a mourner’s house. Its simple form bespeaks pure functionality; the shelves to hold siddurim, the painted box to hold the Torah and the crown – like cornice to lead the eye heavenward. And yet, the painted doors use art to address the specifics of the use. A straight road cuts through a blood red field as it approaches two towering gold ochre mountains.

In his time of intense pain and loss, the mourner must cut through his emotions and advance to the mountain of Torah, a mountain that seems almost unassailable. And yet, even in our deepest mourning, we understand that the Torah will return us to the land of the living and to life. Nessa Rapaport’s meditation on this object insists, “Choose life, hear, cleave to Me, beloved, open to Me.”

Tobi Kahn’s work searches out unique metaphors as his means become increasingly transgressive, pushing the boundaries of normative Judaic images. The Aron Kodesh utilizes landscape imagery to evoke a mourner’s consciousness, exactly the kind of depiction that most Torah arks avoid because of the ancient fears of nature worship. The human figure is boldly used in Tokah (1998), the Rosh Hashanah apple and honey set, a joyful miniature sculpture of a figure dancing holding the honey container that expresses the happiness of the New Year with its hopes and aspirations.

Even Kahn’s creation of an Elijah’s Chair for his own son’s circumcision challenges the normative. The tall backed modernist throne is simplicity itself, except that under the seat is a small niche reminiscent of the series of small shrines he made a few years earlier. A small abstract figure rests on a pedestal, reminding all that even as a child enters the covenant, other forces lurk nearby.

This evocation of another side of Judaism, always in context with the very fabric of modern life, is what sets Kahn’s images and objects on edge, challenging our preconceptions of religiosity. Nonetheless, Kahn consistently refers to the fundamentals of Jewish faith as he explores its visual expression. His Hanukah lamp, Quya (1996) utilizes a repeated floral motif that parades across three vegetal supports. The lamps are suspended, miraculously defying gravity, in a physical equivalent of the miracle of the oil. The three tripod supports, perhaps alluding to the three principles that support the world; Torah, worship and kindliness (Avos: 1:2) appear to stand on their toes, as it were, emphasizing the floating nature of the lights themselves. Suspension of disbelief, in art as well as faith, is a precondition to experiencing miracles.

Objects Of The Spirit, curated by Laura Kruger, has been touring the country for the last four and a half years as part of Kahn’s educational project, “Avoda.” In accompanying lectures and workshops, “Avoda” has encouraged thousands of individuals to create personal ritual objects in an expansion of their own spirituality.

The book, published in 2004, adds to the Avoda experience, including trenchant essays that contextualize Kahn’s work within art history and traditional Judaica (Emily D, Bilski); addresses the emerging role of sacred art in public consciousness (Terrence E. Dempsey, S.J.); and explores the resistance to specific context that his mysterious titles and neutral exhibition format espouses (Leora Auslander).

The 27 full-page color reproductions of Kahn’s work are each accompanied by Nessa Rapaport’s poetic meditations. While her sensitivity towards her husband’s work is not surprising, her ability to connect with a Biblical voice and infuse her contemporary poetry with the authority and passion of Tanach is truly moving. I can think of no better supplication at Rosh Hashanah than Nessa’s accompaniment to Tobi’s apple and honey set;

“Awaken to the year as it is born, the Aleph Bet beginning, writing our destiny. Sovereign of sweetness, refute severity, remember us as we return to You, word by word, assemble us, Scribe, let us hear Your call as we summon You into our lives.”

The creative relationship between an individual and mitzvah, mediated by an object that fractures our expectations, is the operative subject of Tobi Kahn’s ritual objects.

Ruth Weisberg’s short essay proposes a slightly subversive understanding of hiddur mitzvah, the principle of beautifying our mitzvos. Beyond adorning the mitzvah, she suggests that, “[Jewish] art is a way of knowing, a different kind of intelligence, and an organizing principle.” Indeed, a kind of midrash.

I believe that Kahn’s ritual objects go considerably further. His best works pour his questioning into the pre-existing vessel of ritual, thereby attempting to repossess his faith. His Objects Of The Spirit deconstruct what we think we know about ritual, and demand that one cannot truly enhance a mitzvah, perhaps not even perform a mitzvah, without reconstructing it.

Objects of the Spirit: Ritual and the Art of Tobi Kahn. Avoda Institute, Ltd. NY & Hudson Hills Press, NY, 2004. “Avoda: Objects of the Spirit” by Tobi Kahn. Exhibitions: Georgetown University Intercultural Center, 37th Street NW & O Street NW, Washington, D.C, (202 777 3208). January 26 to February 18, 2005. University of Southern California, Los Angeles, March 8 to May 31, 2005. ◙

Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at www.richardmcbee.com .



Tobi Kahn’s Horizons

Friday, July 18th, 2003

Tobi Kahn: Sky and Water – The Neuberger Museum of Art; Purchase College,
State University of New York. 735 Anderson Hill Road; Purchase NY 10577-1400.
(914) 251-6100 www.neuberger.org. Tuesday – Friday, 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m;
Saturday – Sunday, 11:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. Closed Mondays and major holidays.
Admission; $5.00. Until August 24, 2003.


 

Sky & Water, a new installation of 106 paintings by Tobi Kahn at the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, New York, concentrates on one esoteric subject: the contemplation of the horizon. At once modern in its abstraction and postmodern in idiosyncratic naturalism, this assertive exhibition has deep links with Jewish meditation even as it champions a non-denominational spirituality.

Set in the monumental Theater Gallery, each wall of the installation is a distinct tone poem within an overwhelming whole. Ohra (2003), a nine-panel work seven feet four inches tall and 45 feet long, occupies the dominant wall. Each heavily painted panel is placed directly next to its nearly identical neighbor. The effect is one of relentless repetition that opens into a vista of pale turquoise water bounded by a warm overcast sky. The wall to the right, 52 feet long, introduces five variations on the theme. The first three paintings, Ya-ir; XXIII, XXIV, and XXVI (1999) explore subtle shades of pink and green grays as the horizon swells up, down and up again.

Two larger paintings, Ya-ir XIX and XX (1999) provide a strong contrast of intense color and luminosity. In one canvas, dark blues weigh upon ominous green water while in the other, the water has become a fearsome crimson barely contained by a pale sky. Across the room, one is confronted with a 16-foot high wall displaying 80 paintings. A seemingly random arrangement of small to medium sized works anchored by three central canvases creates a staccato of diverse horizons. The sixty-seven foot back wall is devoted to twelve identical blue on blue paintings, Ahrav (2003), an elegant meditation on the phenomena of twilight infusing sky and water.

Although it is tempting to see this work in light of romantic landscape painting or the moody abstractions of Mark Rothko, Kahn’s work is considerably more complex as it attempts to move beyond naturalism and monistic meditation. The central element we see in Sky & Water is a numbing repetition of the image of the horizon, rarified and abstracted so that we are forced to notice every nuance between one painting and the next. This repetition has its conceptual roots in the classic Jewish methodological approach to the spiritual. From the mundane to the esoteric, repetition is central in our approach to G-d. We say the identical Shemoneh Esrei three times a day, over 800 times a year while many of us “daven” the texts of Tehillim and even the Haggadah in a rote repetition reinforced with trance-like shuckling.

Jewish meditation finds its roots in the Talmudic Heychaloth Rabbati of Merkavah mysticism that uses the mystical “name” of G-d (actually a long list of mystical words and phrases) in 120 repetitions to elevate the consciousness of the devotee. A technique involving the repetition of Biblical verses known as gerushin was used in 16th century Safed to simultaneously dominate the consciousness of the meditator and to provide mystical insight into the verse itself. Rabbi Joseph Caro used the repetition of a Mishnah as a kind of mantra to open up communication with a maggid (a heavenly being that reveals celestial secrets). The Ari (Rabbi Isaac Luria) also used repetitions of selections of the Zohar to plumb its secrets. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1811) utilized repetitions of the phrase Ribbono Shel Olam as a way of opening a meditative conversation with G-d. Here, as in many of the other examples, the technique of repetition is but a means to an elevated consciousness. The specific content of the
repetition is not primary. However, in Kahn’s paintings, the content seems wedded to the technique of repetition that addresses, in his words, “the redemptive possibilities of art.”

Tobi Kahn says, “I love making art that takes you to a different place, a better place.” This desire for transformation through meditation is expressed in a room he has created at the Health Care Chaplaincy of New York at 315 East 62nd Street, an institution dedicated to those who encourage healing through spirituality. Here one is engulfed by nine of his shimmering deep green Sky & Water paintings that surround three chairs and two benches specially designed by Kahn. The darkly soothing horizon is situated between the heart and the eye, creating an environment of Zen-like calm and peace titled “Emet.”

These works, especially the Sky & Water installation at the Neuberger Museum, recall a type of minimalism. They restrict their expressive tools to very few colors and the one compositional idea of the horizontal division of the canvas. Nevertheless, it is the technique of repetition with small barely noticeable differences that dominates Kahn’s aesthetic agenda. Much like the post-modernist strategies of Walter de Maria’s Broken Kilometer and the serial music of Philip Glass and Steve Reich, Kahn aims to nudge us into a contemplative state by the quiet insistence of image repetition. Paradoxically, image repetition markedly concentrates what is repeated and heightens visual distinctions while in classic meditation verbal repetition blurs the substance of what is said. The paintings navigate an uneasy border between a pleasant visual sensuality and the nagging impression of being slightly boring. It is exactly that tension that begins to draw us into their methodology of meditation and contemplation.

The horizon operates in these paintings as a symbolic meeting place that Kahn has literally etched in the surface of almost all the paintings. Wherever it is found, it is the physically empty place where the paint making up the sky stops and the painted water begins. In painting after painting, the horizon is a slim void, a breath of air between the density of the spiritual sky and the suffocating reality of the watery depths. After experiencing the painted repetition of the existential border between the supernal and the mundane, between the demands of the spiritual and the dangerous lures of the physical, it seems that this horizon might very well represent for Kahn human freedom, the free will of the spiritually sensitive individual. It is an uncomfortable place, bound by massive forces beyond our control. And yet it is exactly where we are defined as uniquely and proudly human.


(Background material on Jewish meditation is from “Jewish Meditation” by Aryeh Kaplan, Schocken Books, 1985)

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

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/tobi-kahns-horizons/2003/07/18/

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