Thinking about the stories behind the pictures
Here in San Diego, I chanced upon an exhibit at the Jacobs Family Community Centre and was drawn to the stories behind the paintings.
The Stories Behind the Pictures.
Walk into the JCC and you pass a room with colourful pictures. Because I paint and write, I peek in and discover it is an exhibit based on the artists’ connection to their faith, Judaism: Things We Pass Down.
Drawn by colour and shape , I enter and my eyes catches fabric, object, paint, texture..But there is, as well, a mood, a somber feeling pervading the premise. It’s not as if this is great art, but somehow these pieces have reached out and combined as a melody or a chant of something past and beautiful.
At the entrance there is a welcoming piece by Judy Mandel, a trunk overflowing with shoes, candlesticks, a hat and teapot. Immediately, notions of the diaspora, exile, fleeing quickly, packing up, the search for home and what we cherish is established. These are themes we connect with our history: they have marked us with longing. Here the application of paint, the quality of drawing or even the composition is not the story; however the pictures invite us in to explore the inspiration behind these offerings.
Usually I scorn the small cards that hold provenance and provide information behind paintings displayed in art galleries, for people wind up reading, not looking, not perceiving the connection between themselves and the work of art. But the back stories of each artist here enhance the motifs of tradition, learning, Torah with personal reflections that support the art.
With Dennis Ellman, the topic is obvious: old bearded man, obviously religious. One of his sextet entitled” Joy “ displays an acrobat reminiscent of Marc Chagall . A brief biography relates that the bearded man is the painter’s grandfather who accompanied him to the Russian Orthodox shul in Venice. Shown contemplatively fingering his lush beard, the dignified old fellow is framed by the luminance of stained glass. The affection for the zaida is clear as we imagine how the grandfather has bequeathed his love of prayer and Torah to his devoted kinder. My mind recalls my husband’s story of a small synagogue in Hamilton, Ontario where his grandfather hoisted him up on the bema and told him to dance and the old men drank schnapps after service, laughing together.
Similarly when I notice a cooking pot on a pedestal here,I think immediately of DuChamp’s Readymades or Claus Oldenburg’s hamburgers: ordinary objects set apart from their everyday contexts, and I ponder “ cooking pot ?” . Actually the lemons on the wal had lured me further into this exhibit. But again it is the sweet story of longing by Judith Shufro that touches me deeply. She recalls her mother, Frances’ food: borscht, stuffed cabbage, sweet and sour soup. And the pot presented once transported cholent in a hat box to New York for the artist. I recall the narratives of women in Theresienstadt in book entitled Memory’s Kitchen: a Kegacy from the women of Terezin who cobbled bits of paper together in order to jot down recipes as a way to endure their tortures in the camp, able to endure by holding on to fragrant memories of happier times surrounded by their loved ones at table .
I think too of Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation and her story as an immigrant from Poland. Americanized so she would fit better into school life, her name is changed. For Hoffman,a new language alienates her from her early identity:, her childhood lessons at the piano, her rambles on leafy streets in her first home with her friends. She longed to re- embrace that divided self and spent much of her life searching for the alienated little girl who grew up and experienced life in another language. Maybe it is this pot too that stirs my own remembrances of my mother’s roasted chicken with carrots and potatoes tucked under its edges every Friday night that gives me pause, a solitary object that holds so much more than soup. The dreams of tantalizing smells that return us to the days of love and comfort plunge us back to a secure childhood.
Lenore Simon has assembled fragments of past lives into collages. Papers, photographs, documents are carefully cut and arranged yet few overlap as one might expect in this art form.
Similarly Deborah Amerling also creates collages but hers overlays with paper, objects such as red ribbons and painted symbols of the Evil Eye that recall for me Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg who interwove real materials into their work . Amerling laments how life is changing, regretting that traditions and rituals are being lost. Even though, once all of her friends understood” Kenahora Pu, Pu( the name of one of her collages) she worries that the sound of Yiddish, the funny little sayings passed down from our bubbles will not survive. I understand her well, and conclude that the collage of individual bits are an apt form for her longing, a fine metaphor for the search for connecting past and present as she seeks to convey to her children the treasured morsels from her own days of growing up Jewish. Not wanting to make religion an artifact that has no life, we desire at the same time to ensure the traditions we ourselves loved as children continue as meaningful into the future.
The most interesting work for me as an art reviewer is Janet Lazerow’s who calls herself a “narrative artist. “ Her biography continues that she is interested “ in the dynamics playing out among characters…” The I’ m New Here, Could You Fill Me In?reveals Eve and the serpent against an energetic background,freshly sparkling from its creation by G-d. Thickly composed of acrylic and metallic mica, nature glistens and pulsates with life so that everything shakes and moves. Even the roots of the trees fresh from the act of creation visibly tremble, perhaps foreshadowing how Eve will tremble when she transgresses. At the same time in the same place , wind, rain, and sun wonder- fully coexist. The landscape is one song, all melodies combining in its shining magnificent gleaming lustre. Eve and the serpent stand out against the dazzling backdrop, her hands on her hips, all ready wondering,Which path? What direction? Will you be my friend?: all the questions of the new arrival . Yet we too tremble as we know the outcome of this story.
Lazerow’s story continues in A Low Long Thing that suggests feminist underpinnings. The composition is strong as Eve appears to be in conversation or dispute with the serpent. Again the luminous background is alive and shimmering. Here the repetition of curvilinear forms in Eve’s arm is answered in the shape of the snake’s body. They are held taut in a broken circle.Lazerow thoughtfully continues her explanation behind her work, that her paintings extend “ visual interpretations to the verbal river of Torah commentary”. In Rib, Eve is surrounded , a bit perplexed by Adam’s flying ribs, she at the eye of the hurricane. As in the strongest of paintings, there is a quality that works beyond the literal and the viewer can relate to any “ newcomer”, perhaps aware of lessons from the past, but determining their own journey in a diverse context. Artistically Lazerow also suggests other artistic genres: icons, Fauvism, her flatness, her colour application, the way Eve’s body extends the canvas into our space as viewers. The question might be who is this Eve and where will she wander?
Ronni Jolles’ A Moment to Remember offers a sweet commentary. His small illustration of the unrolled Torah that stretches from today way into the past of the hills of Judea exudes a vision that connects both backward and forward . The artist expresses this idea also physically by layering with papers as if building a bridge from the days of our ancestors to contemporary society. That the work is a compilation of papers gathered from around the world enhances the meaning. The precision of the technique and drawing evokes days of my working on an illuminated manuscript from Stuttgart, burnishing gold leaf, grinding colours,, smoothing the curl of parchment so the preparation and execution relied as much on the materials as replicating the ideas.
But once again it is the presence of real objects, beautiful woven prayer shawls or tallits in magenta and purples by Jacqueline Jacobs that conveys a starkness of beauty as they sit out of context – far from the warmth of the shoulders of the wearer. I think of my elder daughter’s bat mitzvah class, her fashioning a prayer shawl the blue colour of a bird’s egg in spring.. And my mind lingers on my father’s silver tarnished Kiddish cup polished and set out for Elijahu each Passover, even after he was gone.
Like Shufro’s mother’s precious pot, away from the humans who used it, the object feels lonely and sad. Purposely raised to the level of objets d’art in this exhibit, viewing the pot and tallit out of place, is exactly the point -so as to appreciate their separateness and yet call the viewer to relocate the piece to the clamour of Jewish life that bustles and is so full of life. I reflect on Chagall’s shetls in Russia and how his wife wrote so tenderly about the gathering of family during the holidays. No doubt, the women bent over and struggling with their heavy cooking pots, the men wrapped in their tallits, haggling, discussing, their hands touching their beards.I think of the Judengasses all over Europe and heaps of books, torn and discarded documents of holocaust survivors: a burning collage that did not destroy the messages from the past.And I think of the glow of gloriously coloured licht from Israel uniting the faces of my children at Channukah.
Walk into this exhibit at the JCC. Look at the pieces and think about who you are and the resonances of your own life to the pieces in the exhibit. I promise you that hidden memories will swamp you and you will welcome their return.
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