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October 20, 2014 / 26 Tishri, 5775
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘Yeshiva University Museum’

Art That Produces, Not Consumes

Wednesday, September 13th, 2006

Feminine Principals: Works in Iron, Fiber and Glass


Orna Ben-Ami, Georgette Benisty and Saara Gallin


Through January 14, 2007


The Yeshiva University Museum


15 West 16th Street, New York


212-294-8330, http://www.yumuseum.org


 

 

The current show at the Yeshiva University Museum is bizarrely titled. “Feminine Principals: Works in Iron, Fiber and Glass” carries unexpected implications on several counts. It is not often that women, especially Jewish women, are celebrated in the arts. Even less likely are exhibits of work by Jewish women artists who identify as feminists. But the invocation of “principals” – where “principles” seems more natural – suggests that the three artists in the show are the most important, feminist Jewish artists. Viewers who expect such results will be disappointed (since there is much feminist art that is at least as good that is not in the show). But the show is not without merit.

 

Orna Ben-Ami’s iron sculptures – which bombard the viewer who just enters the exhibit – contain strong narrative components. “I Can’t Paint 1″ is a canvas on an easel signed by the artist in both English and Hebrew. It is no wonder that the artist cannot paint, as the canvas is hopelessly torn. Art of this sort, which is art “about the inability to make art”, sets itself in companionship with the intellectual (and ultimately nihilistic) art forms of Dada and Surrealism, and it resembles some of Moico Yaker’s drawings, recently exhibited at the YU Museum called “Having Trouble to Pray.”

 

Hanging in a corner, near “I Can’t Paint 1,” is an enormous Torah pointer that looks like a gun. A suitcase with tree roots emerging from within sits on the floor nearby, perhaps combining the wandering Jew, who must always have packed bags ready for easy escape (thus the suitcase), with the Jew’s deep rooted identity. “Superior Power” shows tzitzis hanging from above, in a way that resembles a marionette, and a piece on mutar (allowed) andassur (forbidden) shows clothing behind bars, perhaps a commentary on the laws of modesty, or tzniut.

 

A statement from Ben-Ami is plastered on the wall above “I Can’t Paint 1“: Creating is like giving birth, so whatever the material will be, creating is very feminine. I am trying to soften the material-but more than this physical fact, what I am trying to do is put emotions in it.”

 

The fact that the iron sculptures are made by a woman is certainly significant. Most people think of ironwork as the domain of the male artist, who can cope with the weight, roughness and mess. Women are thought of as daintier artists who weave, sew or paint. But Ben-Ami shows how subjective this account is. And indeed, more than 50 years ago painting was considered a male endeavor, as Jewish artist Anni Albers and other women artists in the Bauhaus discovered when they were barred from painting.

 


 

Roots.” By Orna Ben-Ami, 1999. Courtesy of Yeshiva University Museum, New York,

May 7, 2006 – January 14, 2007.

 


 

But beyond the material, there seems to be little that is truly feminist about Ben-Ami’s work, even given her statements that seem to suggest that all art (even made by men) is feminist in its resemblance to giving birth. Georgette Benisty’s fabric figures follow suit. Benisty’s series is called Renouer (renewal), and according to the Museum pamphlet, they “reflect her desire to stitch together the dispersed fragments of her Moroccan past and French culture, interweaving the color, rhythm, architecture and antiquities of her native land through fabric, paint and collage.” But Benisty’s fabric works, like Ben-Ami’s iron works, do not immediately reveal how they fall under the banner of the “Feminine Principals” show title.

 

Saara Gallin’s glasswork, though, is deeply feminist in both content and form. Gallin says her work directly responds to “the spoken and unspoken conflict women face in regard to their roles today.” She speaks of stereotypes of women that are “presented and reinforced by advertising and the media.” To counter these stereotypes, Gallin aims to use her art to showcase “significant, although quiet, voices of the women who define themselves by producing, rather then consuming.”

 

What Gallin means by producing and consuming is not readily apparent. As she describes it, “I believe we must look at what people do rather than at what they say. Talk is cheap. The women I have singled out speak with their actions.”

 

One piece that attends to this theme is “Braishit – In the Beginning” (1998). The 48-inch tall sculpture is made of three layers of glass, held together with an aluminum frame. The work is heavily personal, and without the “explanation” hanging beside the sculpture, the work would remain entirely mysterious. The back layer has motifs like lions, fish and a palm tree, covered by a layer of swirls of yellow and gray. On the top layer there’s a white dove and the word “yes” written (sand-carved into the layer and gilded) several times, in yellow capital letters with exclamation marks.

 

Gallin describes the piece as part of an “affirmative” series that refers to creation. “My goal has been to honor people who, by their deeds, have touched the lives of countless individuals. They have responded to the cynicism, which threatens man [emphasis mine] throughout the ages with an emphatic YES! To life.” The affirmation of life emerges in the piece in the form of several signatures that Gallin describes as a fireman, a schoolteacher, two community leaders, two justices of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, an attorney and a doctor.

 



Am Echad” (One People). By Saara Gallin. Photograph by Steve Halpern, courtesy of the artist.


 


 

“Am Echad” is a similar venture, but the iconography has changed. Instead of the flora and fauna, “Am Echad” – Israel at its 50th birthday, Gallin reveals – showcases a Jewish star and abstract gold and blue shapes, all covered by the Hebrew word “keyn” (yes) in a variety of fonts. Gallin identifies the typefaces as “going back to early Haggadahs,” and the signatures this time come from a soldier in the Jewish brigade in WWII, a soldier in Haganah, a botanist at the University of the Negev, two international attorneys (a couple it seems), a founder of Kfar Blum, the artist’s children, a person who saved 1,000 orphans by bringing them from Tehran to Israel in WWII, and an individual who resigned from the Nobel Committee to avoid voting for Yasir Arafat.

 

Gallin’s other work in the show is somewhat less political. It includes a lot of work exhibited in a circular form contained in a pedestal that evokes a globe, a magnifying glass or a mirror. One piece explores clouds (perhaps the “Clouds of Glory” that protected the Jews in the desert), with circular red forms that could double as red blood cells. A series called “Aishet Chayil” (Women of Valor) shows a woman identified as Glueckel of Hameln (1645-1724) and another identified as Gracia Nasi (1510-1569) on what appears to be a coin. Another shows three women framed within the circle, surrounded by abstract shapes, some of which look like candies, others like footprints. Some of Gallin’s more realistic works in the gallery show menorahs and mezuzahs.

 



Gracia Nasi.” By Saara Gallin. Photograph by Steve Halpern, courtesy of the artist.


 

 

Gallin’s work can thus be compared to the graffiti art of French artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Basquiat had his own language (houses, the word “home,” abstract shapes, trees), and one can tell by “reading” his paintings that his work was highly personalized and that he took it very seriously. Each piece of Basquiat’s was almost entirely about his signature, as is much of graffiti art, and it is hard to imagine something more personal than that. But the language is ultimately opaque and too esoteric to understand completely. Gallin writes in the exhibit brochure: “Light is the symbol of the divine. Glass is the vehicle, which makes light perceptible. The quality most unique to glass is its relationship to light. No other medium has the range of transparency or versatility of glass. I think of my work as sculpting with light.”

 

The notion of sculpting with light through glass and the luminous surfaces that Gallin captures are worth further examination, and the black-and-white images on these pages do not do them justice. But as an exhibit, “Feminine Principals” must be credited more with opening a door to discussing some of the contemporary art that is being produced by Jewish women, without offering much of a discussion of the wealth and breadth of that emerging field.

 

Menachem Wecker is a painter and assistant editor of B’nai B’rith Magazine in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com

From Amputation To Wholeness: A Call To Art From The Torah World

Friday, December 19th, 2003

“We have inherited an amputated visual culture, viscously cut off from our artistic forefathers we have every right to lay claim to,” exclaimed Archie Rand, artist and professor at Columbia University. In a passionate and articulate account, Rand recounted a sweeping history unknown to many. From the Jewish muralists in the third century CE, Dura-Europos synagogue to Camille Pissarro, one of the founders of Impressionism and an important influence on Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cezanne, Jews have played an important role in the visual arts. Rand demanded that we recognize and capitalize upon this crucial role, especially
in Jewish education.

Concerning the New York School of Abstract Expressionism, easily the most important movement in mid-20th Century culture, Rand noted that, “A significant percentage of the important artists were Jews. We need to celebrate the Jewish artists,” Rand demanded of an appreciative audience at the ATID (Academy for Torah Initiatives and Directions) conference held at the Center for Jewish Culture on Sunday, November 9, 2003.

This conference, entitled “Creative Spirituality: Jewish Education and the Arts” organized by Rabbi Chaim Brovender, president of ATID and for many years Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat HaMivtar (Brovenders) in Efrat, Israel, may be one of the most significant events in the growing reawakening of the Jewish arts.

The gathering, cosponsored by Yeshiva University Museum, brought together practicing artists, yeshiva educators, museum curators and rabbinic leaders to explore the role and potential of art in Jewish education. Rabbi Brovender linked the unique quality of beauty found in nature or created artworks, to the uniqueness found in the truth embedded in Torah.  Paradoxically, neither is ever totally satisfying; we always feel a need to experience more beauty and truth.

The newness of each encounter adds to the unique quality of each experience in learning Torah and viewing beauty and art. Rabbi Brovender suggested that, since the nature of Torah and the nature of beauty have similarities, perhaps the teaching of art could enhance or
reinvigorate the teaching of Torah in yeshivas.

Earlier, Sylvia Heshkowitz, director of Yeshiva University Museum, related the famous story of Rav Kook’s reaction to the paintings of Rembrandt in the National Gallery in London. Rav Kook was deeply moved by the paintings, marveling at the quality of light that Rembrandt achieved. It seemed to him that Rembrandt had uncovered a portion of the “hidden light of creation.” If indeed Kook’s appreciation was correct that Rembrandt in his creativity had somehow accessed and had communicated a mystical understanding of the light G-d created on the first day and had set aside for the righteous in the World to Come, art could be considered a vital tool to draw one close to Torah.

Rabbi Brovender carried the insight even further in an analysis of an abstract painting by Mark Rothko. Brovender commented that the Rothko painting, one large field of maroon color in the upper half of the painting floating above a darker color on the bottom, demanded our attention. These large luminous works, often thought of as evoking a metaphysical experience,
compel our further investigation because, “he poured his neshama into these pictures.”

The very difficulty comprehending these abstract images causes us to struggle towards the painting’s meaning, revealing, according to Rabbi Brovender, that “Truth is not simple, even when you are holding on to the Torah.” We must struggle in the creative process of encounter, search and introspection whether we are learning Torah or viewing or creating art. This vital link was explored throughout the conference.

Rabbi Lamm, Chancellor of Yeshiva University and Rosh Yeshiva of RIETS, commented on the traditional Hasidic receptivity to music and art through the concept of avodat Hashem b’gashmiut. The notion that we can serve G-d beyond the performance of commandments,
through all aspects of our lives including artistic creativity, set the stage for a presentation of Rav Soloveitchik’s views of art and aesthetics by Rabbi Shalom Carmy of Yeshiva University. The Rav’s views of art were complex and not entirely positive. There was the suspicion that art, the aesthetics of both the natural world and that created by man, could overwhelm the
intellect and hamper study of Torah.

Nevertheless, the Rav believed that Talmud Torah demanded imagination, spontaneity and creativity, citing the need for a “polyphonic diversity rather than the discipline of a military march.” Clearly, his emphasis on these qualities would imply his openness to creativity as a
Torah enhancing value. Most revealingly, Rav Soloveitchik felt that in prayer, “Only the aesthetic experience linked with the exalted may bring man into contact with G-d.”

After a series of hands-on-workshops that emphasized exploration of techniques as “means of
expression” and a break for lunch, the conference continued with presentations by educators and artists chaired by Gabriel Goldstein, curator and art historian at Yeshiva University Museum.

Tobi Kahn, artist and professor of Fine Arts at the School of Visual Arts, and artist in residence at SAR high school in Riverdale, addressed the need for art education in yeshivas. Ninety percent of students “don’t know how to see,” meaning that they are unable to encounter and interpret complex visual phenomena. By teaching students “how to see and raising their visual consciousness,” Kahn is expanding both their creative capacity in the visual world and in all areas of their intellectual life.

For Kahn, who advocated visual arts programs in yeshivas over at least the four years of high school, “the creative process is a gift from G-d,” whether learning Torah or making a painting. His objectives seemed to address both education of appreciators of art and creators of art. For him, “making art is an additional way of davening.” The intimate relationship between
creativity and spirituality is paramount. Creative interaction is the central process.

Rabbi Alan Stadtmauer, principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush High School, addressed issues of establishing a realistic curriculum for the study of art in high school, commenting that the study of art exposes adolescents to a certain kind of vulnerability that is common in both
experiencing art and seeking spirituality.

Rabbi Moshe Simkovich of the Stern Hebrew High School of Philadelphia echoed this sentiment. He spoke of a certain, nervous suspicion evidenced by parents about the use of art as an entranceway to spirituality. These educators understood that both the use of art as a
creative means to access spirituality and as a creative end in itself could be fraught with complex issues new to yeshiva education. Yet all agreed that it was well worth the effort to encourage this kind of creativity, at the very least, because of its potential for reinvigorating the
learning process and connection to Torah.

Towards the end of the afternoon session, Archie Rand speculated on the importance of the first Jewish artist, Bezalel. He noted that we are first told about him high up on Mount Sinai, just as G-d has finished commanding Moses about all the details of the construction of the Mishkan (Exodus 31:1). Bezalel, “filled with a G-dly spirit, wisdom, insight and knowledge” and his assistant Oholiab, “wise-hearted,” will craft “all that I have commanded you.” Jewish art is born at the very moment we are given the means to serve G-d. Within moments, Moses will descend the mountain and smash the tablets crafted by G-d Himself. But Jewish art and artists will live on, first in crafting the Tabernacle in the wilderness, then in the Temple and throughout the ages, making objects to fulfill commandments, illuminations for countless books, murals and mosaics for synagogues and finally, to the cornucopia of Jewish artwork we have today. As a “People of the Book,” immersed in the ethereal holy Torah, we focus on deeds and concepts, immune to the lure of crass objects and images. And yet, Jewish art is
the exception - born on Sinai – in which we engage in the aesthetics of the visual world.

The rabbis, educators and artists at this conference believe that the process of creatively engaging in the visual experience, appreciating and making art, can stimulate and nourish the spirituality of Torah. Surely then, that same process applied to specific Jewish content, the vast store of Torah, commentaries and Jewish knowledge, can give birth to an art that, itself will
become a form of Torah learning, a visual Midrash, a visual davening, even a visual Avodat Hashem.

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

Bradford’s Conundrum: Paintings By John Bradford

Friday, November 14th, 2003

John Bradford’s exhibition of nine paintings, done in the 1990′s - presents us with a conundrum. Clearly these are paintings you must see, but I cannot recommend that you see then now. They make their subjects immediately accessible even as the road to this visual enlightenment is blocked by the unfamiliar and strange. And last but not least, the work shown here represents a pictorial methodology rejected by the artist himself. In short, it is Bradford’s conundrum.

Bradford’s work has appeared in these pages many times over the last three years. His work has provided rich insights into the Torah subject matter that he has, as a non-Jew, devoted himself to. His last exhibition in December 2002 showed work of extreme simplicity, a radical High Modernism in the service Biblical exegesis. The starkly spare line against a flat picture plane devoid of atmospheric effects successfully echoed the elegantly simple Biblical texts that he chooses to comment upon. The current exhibition is dramatically different, looking
backward at work that is still rooted in many of the Renaissance traditions of Western painting.

We see in these paintings normative concepts of pictorial space; foreground, middle ground and even deep background space. There is a persistent sense of looking into a framed scene or tableau in marked contrast to the radically flat surface of the more recent works. Even the exhibition space is traditional, a Gothic chapel in the Union Theological Seminary. While most readers of the Jewish Press will probably not feel comfortable viewing this artwork in a Christian seminary, nonetheless the paintings bear important messages for us to uncover.

Esther’s Feast (1996) seems to represent the final confrontation between Esther and Haman in a straightforward manner. The King and Haman are grouped on the left opposite a reclining Esther. A bizarre orchid-like flower intrudes from the side establishing the exotic decadence of the scene. As we follow the three heads across the middle of the canvas, other annoying details become apparent. The King is seated in a chair that visually binds him to the figure of Haman. Haman is striving in the opposite direction, threatening to tear asunder this unnatural pairing. If we note the scale of Haman’s head we realize that he is probably much deeper in
the pictorial space than the King. We have been tricked by a mere juxtaposition. Once our eyes adjust to this spatial reconfiguration the real subject of the painting begins to emerge.

The painting is actually depicting the confrontation between Esther and the King. They are locked together in visual struggle across the diminutive banquet table. Her face is in shadow
while her arm gestures accusingly. The King’s profile is staring directly at her as he leans forward and begins to rise in apprehension. Her singular presence rooted at the base of a massive column demands the King make the just decision to destroy the enemy of the Jews. Bradford has revealed that up until now the King was ambivalent. Now he must choose. This drama is played out in a paradoxically empty royal hall, observed only by two witnesses in
the distance precisely midway between the King and his Queen.

The use of deep space in Esther’s Feast is collapsed into the interior space of Jael and Sisera
(1995). We find ourselves deep inside Jael’s tent, witness to her assassination of the defeated general Sisera. The warm interior of the tent contrasted with the sharp triangle of the opening to the outside sets the scene of her deception and struggle. The hammer is seen brilliantly illuminated beneath the bed as a counterpoint to the tent peg silhouetted in Sisera’s skull. She slinks around the body on all fours, perhaps stunned at her power in slaying the man whom the Midrash describes as “in his might has conquered the whole world ? there was no city whose wall he could not cause to collapse with his voice…”

Once again Bradford’s painting confounds our narrative expectations of Jael’s triumphant victory by use of unusual pictorial space. A typical triumph should normally ascend in a vertical format, whereas this painting assaults the viewer by thrusting Sisera’s feet and legs literally into our faces. It is the ignominious view of a corpse in a morgue, his legs flayed out like a drunk on the sidewalk. Sisera is disgraced by the very space the artist has assigned him.

The Covenant of the Parts (1991) utilizes the depiction of space in the most radical manner of
these paintings. A superficial reading of this image yields a simple description of a series of dead animals that delineate the foreground leading towards a smoking fiery presence at the extreme left. The starkly lit figure of Abraham is seen midway into the open field that stretches before us. Far in the distance a mysterious structure, perhaps a steeple, a monument or a smokestack, dominates the horizon.

This enormous painting, nine and a half feet by twelve feet, is an overwhelmingly dark and brooding meditation on what cannot be expressed, indeed what cannot be made into art, namely the fundamental covenant between G-d and the Jewish people. The nature of the mystery is explicated in absences in the painting. Each pictorial element, while pretending to normatively describe a scene, is lacking essential details. The consuming fire at the far left is only seen in reflection of its smoke, its essence hidden offstage. Likewise the slaughtered
animals, symbolic of future sacrifices that will atone for the Jewish people, are not yet clearly cut in two as the biblical text demands.

Billowing smoke (the smoky furnace of the text) enters the painting from the right and further
obscures the all-important sacrifices. Finally this same smoke partially blocks our view of Abraham, covering his lower half and isolating him. Bradford’s depiction of the covenant giving the Jewish people the Land of Israel is filled with uncertainty and dread. All that seems to make visual sense, symbolically, rings hollow and distant. He seems to be telling us that, while we all continue to believe in this covenant, because of the subsequent history of loss and exile that extends up to this very day, we cannot fully apprehend the Covenant Between the Parts.

Bradford’s current exhibition celebrating his unorthodox use of traditional pictorial devices allows us to see his past work after seeing his most recent modernist works. This distortion in his artistic chronology uncovers one salient idea stemming from ‘Bradford’s conundrum.’ Jewish art, especially biblical subjects, are not limited to one ideal means of artistic expression, even within the work of one artist. Rather the complex nature of these subjects demands the use of multiple avenues of creativity to bring out continuously richer and more fruitful
meanings.

Note: The review of Remembrance: Russian Post-Modern Nostalgia; at Yeshiva University Museum, originally scheduled for this week, has been postponed so that more research can be done on the subject. It will be published in the near future.

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

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/bradfords-conundrum-paintings-by-john-bradford/2003/11/14/

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