Some Jewish art brings back memories of chicken soup and Hanukka lights.
ome is soulful and spiritual with mystical symbols flung across the canvas. And
then there is the kind that shocks, offends and challenges.
Controversy was swirling even before the exhibit opened. Some of
the artists whose work is part of mainstream art became nervous about
being categorized as Jewish. What if they became stereotyped, pushed
into a niche?
Others began to squirm as the June opening date drew closer. They
didn't feel Jewish; they didn't believe they belonged in a show sponsored
by The Jewish Community Council of Northern New Mexico, and when "Jewish
Artists on the Edge" opened in Santa Fe, the buzz, bewilderment
and even shock were running high.
Clearly this exhibit‑curated by On Z. Soltes, former director of
The B'nai B'rith Klutznick Museum in 'Washington, D.C., and currently
professorial lecturer at Georgetown University and the Smithsonian
Institution‑is one that forces people to think. Sometimes the connection
to Judaism is subtle and the viewer has to provide the links.
Shirley Klinghoffer's contribution involves written testimonies of
women who are enduring or have endured breast cancer. Their thoughts
are searing. "I'm in continual amazement that I have so many
days when I find myself fighting for my life with all I have to give,
and then suddenly, out of nowhere, along conies a day when I feel
like killing myself," says one. The photographed statements
are framed and hung on a grid over the equally powerful molds of
breasts taken for purposes of reconstructive surgery. Klinghoffer
renders them in glass, to express the fragility of women who are
thrust, unprepared, into the often cold world of medicine; in a sense
the women, too, are on exhibit.
Is Klinghoffer's work Jewish? Project director J. Barry Zeiger talks
about sensitivity to those who are marginalized; like Jews, people
who are ill often feel ignored, separated from the abundant flow
Also reflecting marginalization is Carl Plansky's Gagged, an oil‑on‑canvas
self‑portrait. The Hannibal Lecter‑type mask expresses the repression
of the gay man. Startling photo diptychs by Gay Block include Marianne,
a ripe, mature woman fully clothed; next to it is Marianne, her clothes
shed and exulting in her naked body with all its wrinkles and crinkles.
Then there is Freda; next to dressed Freda is naked Freda in all
the joy and wonder of her birthday suit.
We in America are not used to seeing older women being proud of
their naked bodies. We are bombarded with images of skinny young
women of modelesque proportions. But, again, is this Jewish? Zeiger
thinks so. "One of the themes of this
show," he says, "is taking the private and shining light
on it. It has to do with the masks we wear. In the Jewish world there
is often this split between one's personal life and ones public image.
Because of assimilation, we assume a public image."
At first glance, Adrienne Salinger's work doesn't seem to be typically
Jewish either. Huge chromogenic prints of teenagers in their bedrooms
cover one wall. Zeiger explains: "Adrienne was drawn to people
who are marginalized and create their own private little worlds.
This has happened to many Jews living in other cultures. So you can
say the teenagers hiding in their bedrooms are a metaphor for that
situation or show a sensitivity to that situation. Like the Jews,
they have been pushed to the edge."
One of the show‑it‑as‑it‑is installations is a series by Julie Dermansky
and Georg Steinboeck of six video monitors displaying footage of
visitors eating in the cafeteria at Auschwitz. Seemingly unaffected
by the horror, they calmly slurp and munch and chow down with real
"At first glance it seems [an accusatory camera] is being
pointed at these people," says Zeiger. "But it's much more
multilayered. One of the show's themes has to do with past and present,
the evolution of an event or place. This is Auschwitz and now it's
being treated as a museum instead of a concentration camp. For these
people, it no longer has immediacy, or else they wouldn't eat." Still,
it is a challenge to look at Auschwitz diners without judging them.
In Arlene Becker's Elvis in Jerusalem, we see Elvis impersonators
at the Elvis Café in Jerusalem. The prints explore aspects of identity
as they are played out in the world of popular culture.
Geraldine Fiskus, one of the artists in the show (and Zeiger's wife),
reflects on Becker's work: "A lot of our culture‑like Mattell
[toys], Superman‑was created by Jews. I think that because Jews didn't
have idols, we invented our own. We relate to things that are very
accessible within the popular culture. In Israel, musicians and popular
culture figures are almost idolized. There is a hunger for idolatry."
It is a far cry from Elvis to urban ghettos, but that is where Joyce
Ellen Weinstein's exploration takes her. She taught art in a ghetto
high school and, to her horror, many of her young, black students
died in violent situations. "Her feelings of compassion and
her identification with being victimized are certainly Jewish," says
Huge and inescapable are Weinstein's charcoal sketches of the dead
boys. On top of the charcoal, red ink or paint screams and drips
their names and the dates of their short lives. This is a memorial
piece, an honoring of the dead. It is unprettified and forceful.
Ron Pokrasso's collage, All American Russian Boy, is a tribute to
the artist's deceased father, who was nicknamed Babe. Babe's parents
came from Eastern Europe, but Babe was an all‑American kid. As he
told his son, "You can't stop progress; you have to go with
it." Pokrasso took a trip to Russia and his work reflects the
intertwined reality of Russia, America and young Babe, who marked
the transition from traditional to contemporary reality.
Then there is Sterile, a sculpture by Israeli feministactivist Rachel
Giladi. Two baby bottles bookend two toothbrush holders with tampons‑these
copper‑coated objects her statement on womanhood and cleanliness.
One of the most provocative works is Helene Aylon's The Liberation
of God or The Rook That Will Not Close. On five lecterns are
five Bibles covered with vellum. Between the pages are sheets of
parchment which hold the pages open. Explains Aylon, "I highlight
onto the parchment in the empty spaces where a female presence has
been omitted, where only the father's name is recorded as the parent
...." Also passages that are violent and prejudicial.
Aylon, who comes from an Orthodox background, is highly educated.
Married to a rabbi who died very young, she has been on a quest for
the soul of Judaism. She has spent the last eight years poring over
the Bible, deciding what were the words of Moses, the words of the
forefathers and the true words of God. When they are angry and murderous,
she says, they need to be excised; they come from the mouths of men.
Those which come from the Divine spirit, are to be honored and kept.
Her fearless search is, for some, confrontational. Viewers are either
intrigued or put off by Aylon's work.
Deep into the exhibit, viewers stop in their tracks before Tefillin
I, Tefillin II and Tefillin III, a vertical painting installation
by Geoff Laurence. Forget anything you have seen before of tefilin.
work, naked female bodies are wrapped with tefilin. One of the headless
bodies has a pierced nipple. The phylacteries are many things: leather
instruments of bondage, beautiful black leather straps that contrast
with naked white bodies and sensuous wrappings of human flesh.
Laurence is unafraid to look boldly into his Judaism. "My parents
were survivors," he explains. "I was brought up in denial
that I was Jewish. When people asked if I was Jewish I would freeze
cold and start stuttering. About five years ago‑I am 50 now‑I started
faxing my mother blatant questions, like 'Am I Jewish?' After a year
she started responding. It took this long to get the truth. I knew
my relatives had all disappeared in the camps. For the last 30 years
I knew I had to do something. I've been hounded by nightmares. I
have so much confusion; it very hard for me to paint Jewish subjects.
But I need to do this, to paint something with meaning for me."
The series started when Laurence met a female model who was into
bondage. He was fascinated by what she told him: that bondage was
about comfort, like being tucked into bed. She felt comfortable in
confined situations. It obviated the necessity to make decisions;
it was all up to the other person. "I painted this model and
put tefilin on her. It was about bondage to God. About feeling comfortable
with God and allowing oneself to be bound to Him. I thought about
the tefilin. They are made of leather and you bind prayers to yourself.
The woman in my paintings is holding the straps herself; it is voluntary
bondage. I got into a lot of trouble for painting this." So
much so that no gallery will carry his Jewish work; this exhibit
is a rare chance to encounter it.
If Laurence paintings are too on the edge for some, viewers can
linger on less provocative works. The show has something for everyone,
and many surprises, like Fiskus's Wall of Memory In the series of
small canvases she uses visual themes that come from the tombstones
of Eastern Europe: a braided menora, birds, snakes and fish. "I
connect with a culture that no longer exists," she explains. "I
am trying to revive an art form. These tombstone carvings came to
an end with the Holocaust. A large number of my mother's family were
murdered in the Holocaust. I want to give a face to those who died,
to honor their memory."
For Fiskus, the braided menora represents the interlacing, the interdependence
within the Jewish community. A bird can be a metaphor for an individual,
or it can represent the new generation, flying around, reacting,
the eyes and ears of the present. The snake represents renewal and
rebirth, because it sheds its skin. And the fish are often icons
that incorporate the names of the deceased.
Then there's an aluminum artifact, a remnant from a performance piece
by two Russian emigres, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid. When
they came to Israel they built a tower with a star atop it. Drawing
a parallel between their exodus from the Soviet Union to that of
Egypt, by the end of the performance the temple was destroyed. Temple
for the Third Exodus From Russia ‑the star resting on a crushed block
Jewish artists are creating their own midrashim their own commentaries
on what being Jewish means or doesn't mean to them. "Jewish
Artists on the Edge" lifts up the pleasantly moss‑covered rock
of life and examines what is underneath. There is little romanticizing;
things are presented in their unbeautified, unglamorous, authentic
Viewers have a choice of imagery that is comforting, familiar‑or
uncomfortable, outrageous. But printed explanations would enhance
the experience, such as knowing that Laurence is grappling with his
newfound Jewish identity or an explanation of Aylon's biblical highlighting.
Instead, viewers are left to their own devices, deprived of information
that is deep, beautiful and necessary.
The exhibit, no longer in Santa Fe, will be showcased February 2001
in two locations in Albuquerque: the new Jewish Community Center
and campus Magnifico! Art Space. The following September it will
travel to Yeshiva University Museum (at the Center for Jewish History)
in New York where it will remain for five months.