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HADASSAH MAGAZINE VOL 82 NO.2. - OCTOBER 2000

 

ARTS AND CULTURE: BEYOND THE FRINGE
By Judith Fein
 

 

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 of life.

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 gusto.
"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 Zeiger.
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. In Laurence's
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 signifies freedom.

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 state.

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.

 
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