Paintings by Leah Raab and Shany Saar
New York Studio School MFA Thesis Exhibition
May 8 – 22, 2013
Whether it is the disastrous report of the 12 spies or the furious condemnation that doomed an entire generation to die in the wilderness, the Torah narrative in Bamidbar turns terribly grim after the glorious inauguration of the Mishkan in the second year after leaving Egypt. With this in mind, just imagine my surprise at an encounter with two artists who address these (and other Biblical) themes right around the corner. Leah Raab and Shany Saar recently showed their work at the prestigious New York Studio School (8th Street and Fifth Avenue) Master of Fine Art Thesis exhibition. Both artists work, brimming with Jewish content, was eye-opening.
At the top of the stairs and to the left was Leah Raab’s work, Mannequin at War. It is a shocking painting. The exploded and broken forms of an ordinary dress mannequin emerge out of a threatening cloud crowned with a haunting gas mask. Suddenly we realize that nowhere in the world is the gas mask such a familiar image other than in every Israeli household. And here the image is even more unnerving in that the air hose is swinging unattached, rendering the user defenseless. Only a short time ago the gas mask was an anachronistic symbol of World War I and now it represents a fact of life for contemporary Israelis. This sensibility is an underlying theme of Leah Raab’s current work.
Her thesis was to explore subjects that “are familiar and significant…[that] appear tranquil on the surface, yet threatened by a looming, ominous foreboding…” The majority of the 13 paintings on view are devoted to 4 subjects: Mannequins, Yad Vashem, Beit Shemesh Playground and Slides. Typical is her treatment of slides: for most, simply joyful fixtures at playgrounds, pools and waterparks around the world. Even Jerusalem proudly boasts its “Mifletzet” or “monster slide” in Kiryat Yovel; a maze-like beast that sports a three-tongued slide to exit its body. Nonetheless in Raab’s view the children tumbling down and out are ominously throw together, a tangle of bodies, hands and limbs, all too reminiscent of the aftermath of a terror bombing.
Raab is an experienced frum artist and teacher who has lived both in Israel and the United States, thereby maintaining a precarious balance between native and visitor in the Holy Land. The constant onslaught of missiles and terror attacks of recent years is unnerving to an American sensibility and is reflected especially in these works. A simple outing with her granddaughter to Yad Vashem produced a series of landscapes of that peaceful setting, nestled in the Jerusalem Forest just beyond Har Herzl. Overlooking the Garden of the Righteous Gentiles her image of rows of ghost-like trees, naked in the winter light, bespeaks a landscape that is in itself a memorial to unimaginable horror. A diagonal slash that reaches the top of the canvas portends a link to heaven from the blood-red soaked ground below.
Back in a totally domesticated environment the Beit Shemesh Playground shows figures of children playing and evokes an atmosphere of tense anticipation. We enter the painting through the figure in the foreground who is about to hoist herself up on a spring rider. She peers into the painting, catching sight of a friend leaning out from a jungle gym directly behind her. Both figures are caught in mid-action, anticipating but not completing their movement. That tension in the middle of the painting is heightened by a mysterious figure standing on the left. In contrast to the children, she stands stock-still, bound by the verticals of a tree and a light pole and wearing some kind of object on her chest. The sky above them is dark and threatening and the building façade behind them featureless and unhelpful. It is a playground far from missiles and violence and yet acutely aware of all such dangers.