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Excerpt from 'Tradition and Transformation: Three Millenia of Jewish Art & Architecture '
by Professor Ori Z. Soltes

Published by Canal Street Studios July 19, 2016

pages 489-490 (excerpt)

Reflection on the place of those limited by or on the margins of Judaism within its traditional structures and with respect to certain rights- like ease of divorce- is not necessarily only a concern of Jewish women artists. Paterson, New Jersey-born and London-raised Geoffrey Laurence's vertical triptych, “T’fillah"- meaning "Prayer"- breaks the body of a woman into three discontinuous, anonymous parts, around each of which is wrapped the leather strap of the phylactery box- the t'fillin box- which a pious adult Jewish male wraps around his arm and forehead for the daily morning prayer. This literally fulfills the Torah injunction to "bind it for a sign upon thy hand and place it as a frontlet between thine eyes." The prayer recitation includes words thanking God "that He did not make me a woman." The generalized issue of women as commodities (bodies made of anonymous parts without souls within them) and the specifics of woman-exclusion or even negativity toward women in specific corners of Jewish ritual are intriguingly interwoven with the suggestion of contemporary sexual mores: the nipple ring reinforces the notion that the leather strap plays a role in sexual bondage, which then becomes a pun regarding gender bondage and "binding it... upon thy hand" in traditional Jewish settings [FIG 573].
Laurence (b. 1949) grew up virtually commanded by his father- who had, as Laurence's mother had, escaped the Holocaust with deep scars- to forget that he was Jewish, "...whilst constantly lecturing [me] from the age of four about the horrors of what he and others went through, [he] was vehemently anti-Semitic and refused to answer the obvious questions that occurred to me about his background...I was told not to emulate 'Jewish' traits. My father even went so far as to banish garlic from the kitchen because he said it 'smelled of ghetto cookery'." Laurence's address of Jewish subjects reflects a rebellion against the identity strictures under which he, albeit male, grew up regarding participation in any aspects of Jewish life.
He arrived at a particularized Holocaust imagery after, not before he focused more broadly on large Jewish questions, such as the place of women— which seems to be the reverse of a more common trend among Jewish artists to arrive at the Holocaust first and other "Jewish" subject matter later.
"IS-WAS-WILL BE" offers a wry and disturbing comment on one of the painful consequences of the Holocaust: that it will be many generations before historians and everyday people with even a limited interest in the subject disentangle the term "Jew" from the term "Nazi" or even the term "German."
In Laurence's painting, two figures stand before the viewer on the front part of a stage,  its curtains pushed back, in the dramatic- literally  theatrical- frame-within-a-frame style endemic to Baroque-era  painting,   in  order  to facilitate our view of the action. One of the figures is a Nazi officer, attired in full uniform,   with jack  boots and leather. He presents the second figure, arm around his shoulder, as  if that second figure is    being stage-managed or directed by the Nazi officer.  That second figure  is  a skeleton and around its shoulders is what we can easily recognize as a tallit - a Jewish prayer shawl [FIG 574].
Thus Jew and Nazi (Jew and German, Jew and Austrian, Jews and those from all the places in which Nazism flourished) are inextricably interconnected on the stage of history. Judaism has come to the front and center of that stage in the more than half-century since Auschwitz, but the irony is that, if and when that position is dependent only on the matter of the Holocaust, it is the Nazis who become the impresario and the form of Judaism that they hoped to skeletalize has in fact been reduced to a skeleton of the  robust  living  creature  that  has  marched   so dynamically across the stage of history for thousands of years.
The bright light cast upon this pair illumines a circle of bright red (the color of the curtain) framed in deep shadowy black. The colors red and black in combination (which colors are echoed on the Nazi uniform) are a traditional Renaissance symbol of purgatory: the painful yet hopeful process of ascent from hell to paradise—but this is a drama for which such an ascent is hardly a given. The stage lights of Laurence's visual and conceptual theatre are harshly focused, sharpening the details and the edges of his characters and the questions that their performance forces upon us. He asks whether on the stage that is the life where we all act our parts, for better and for worse—whether on the stage of the next generation and the next after that or even the next after that- we will act in concert to produce a theatre of ongoing tragedy or whether we will arrive finally at a conclusion in which we might live happily, even if thoughtfully, ever after.
The fact is that, to return full circle to where this chapter began, so much of contemporary Jewish art inevitably continues to address the Holocaust with all of its issues—that are real issues that, as the world moves forward and continues to exhibit periodic reenactments of Holocaust- like behavior in genocides that extend from Bosnia to Rwanda and Beyond—are issues of broad concern, both theologically (where is God in all this?) and socio-anthropologic-ally (what are humans in all this?).Laurence has produced an entire series inthe past decade focusing on aspects of the Catastrophe: its narrower, Jewish context and its universal implications. His eye and mind explorations parallel the expansion of topics and types of art and craft that have particularly attracted Jewish artists in the past few decades and the ongoing explosion of artists exploring them—as we shall see.

above book excerpt is copyright of Ori Z.Soltes/Canal Street Studios and not for reproduction


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