Tag Archives: Art

A Scanner Messianically

R. Justin Stewart may not be the first artist you’d expect to be behind a work called “Distorting (a messiah project, 13c).” The self-described atheist became interested in the idea of the Messiah after his Jewish wife suggested that he might investigate Judaism for topics to explore in his art. “Distorting,” on display at Brooklyn’s Invisible Dog Art Center through May 5, is an installation made of fleece, rope and plastic, and is dotted with QR codes that visitors can scan for more information. We spoke with Stewart about the installation, the Messiah and its surprising connection to the modern courtship dance. (The following is an edited transcript.)

Can you explain the concept behind the piece?

It’s a 3D bubble diagram of one segment of the history of the idea of the Messiah within Judaism. I’ve done a survey map of the history of the idea of the Messiah as I was able to figure it out over 18 months of research. I took the 13th-century segment and used that data to blow it up to fill the space, so each pod represents a person, a category that person wrote about, or an individual bit of information they said or wrote or was said about them. You can access those bits of information by scanning the QR code that’s on each pod.

What inspired the project?

I really like to read, so this project was an excuse to make reading my work. As an artist you can do that kind of thing. Before I started the project, my father-in-law recommended that I read What Do Jews Believe [by David Ariel]. When I was looking for a topic, my wife suggested Judaism because it has this long history of evolving dialogue, and ideas changing over time, and people riffing off of the writing that came before. That was part of the essence of the topic I was looking for. So I was flipping through the book and one of the chapters is the Messiah. When I flipped through that chapter, I’m like, “Jews don’t believe in the Messiah.” At least that was the Judaism I’d learned up to that point. So I started reading and that was kind of the beginning of my Jewish Messiah education.

So is this religious art?

I’d find it difficult to not put it in the religious category. As an artist I come about it more as an interesting idea that happens to be on a religious topic. I would consider this a piece that has very religious content and could be considered religious art, but I wouldn’t consider myself a religious art maker.

What are you hoping for people to get out of the project?

What really fascinates me is the idea that each one of these pods is just an individual bit of information and the pods themselves are suspended and created by relationships between architecture and each other, in the same way that ideas were created by the relationship between the person writing them and the culture they’re in, the place and time they’re in, and other ideas they’re connected to. No idea manifests in isolation. I’m fascinated by the interconnectivity of them. I think the viewer might be able to get to the idea that each one of these pods needs each other to exist, in the same way that if you removed any bit of information from the messiah topic, the Messiah would change. If you cut any of those ropes it would change the art in its totality.

What do you think the idea of the Messiah means today? Do you believe in the Messiah?

I would consider myself more of an atheist, but I see the Messiah in its broadest definition as just a beacon of hope, the idea of a rupture with reality or a change in reality to something better. That’s an idea I can get behind. I think everybody hopes for something better. So many of the ideas that came up were ideas that seemed to resonate beyond a time frame. Issues that people are dealing with in the 2nd century, they’re still dealing with today, and I think the Messiah can represent a resolution to some of those things. Some of the things the Messianic age would bring for people I find fascinating. One of my favorites was a writing that said when the Messiah came, women would pursue men in the courtship dance. When I read that I was like, “That is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever read,” only because that whole anxiety that goes with men pursuing women or vice versa has existed forever. It’s those kinds of things that I just found amazing in the research.

Ink Plotz: Jewish Women and Confessional Comics

by Amanda Walgrove

Sure, the Oscars ceremony might feature more Jews than your grandmother’s Passover seder, but despite how it might seem, cinema isn’t the only visual art in which Jews are prominently represented. Featuring the work of eighteen artists, Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women is the first museum exhibit to showcase autobiographical storytelling by Jewish women in this unique sub-genre. The exhibit is now in Toronto, where it will run through April 17. In 2012, the exhibit will make its way to New York’s Yeshiva University Museum and University of Michigan’s School of Art and Design.

Jews have long been forerunners in the medium of graphic art. In the late 1960s, Eli Katz (pseudonym Gil Kane) and Archie Goodwin pioneered an early graphic novel prototype entitled, His Name Is…Savage. Art Spiegelman’s groundbreaking Maus won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for its graphic narrative depiction of Nazi Germany.

Women have been writing confessional cartoons since the 1970s, but the context has changed; the then-dominant theme of a stark gender divide has now been superseded by problems with more universal relevance. It wasn’t until journalist Michael Kaminer attended a 2008 Museum of Comic Cartoon Art Expo in New York, that he noticed a curious trend of Jewish women penning autobiographical comics.

“Catholics may confess through a screen in a box, but Jews do it in public—preferably with an audience,” Kaminer commented. By drawing their own screens, boxes, and frames, these women have found innovative ways to convey riotous humor, dramatic confessions, and relatable leitmotifs. After Kaminer wrote an article for The Forward about this unexpected trend, Sarah Lightman, award-winning artist and journalist, proposed turning the idea into an exhibit. The two joined forces to curate an impressive array of originally expressive and transformative work, proving that comics are not just for superheroes and children.

The international collection of artists is richly comprised of visual art veterans, cartoonists, graphic novelists, and comic newbies. While many of these hand-drawn pieces represent Jewish issues, others qualify as Jewish only because their authors identify as such.

In an interview with the Jewish Women’s Archive, artist Miriam Libicki revealed that her motivation to leap into graphic artistry was deeply connected with a need to retain and externalize her sense of Jewish identity. When she moved to the Northwest from Israel, she was surrounded by a group of mostly gentile friends. Ironically, her art started to become full of Jewish references. Libicki said, “Disappearing as a Jew was a horrifying and depressing idea to me, and art, without me realizing it at first, became my way to perform my Judaism, both for myself as a daily practice, and publicly, so that Jewiness was essentially linked to my public identity.” Her graphic novel, jobnik!, which centers around an American girl’s experience in the Israeli army, will be available in December 2011.

Sarah Lightman’s own series, Dumped before Valentine’s, is featured in the exhibit. While at university, she realized that her sister and brother, Esther and Daniel, had their own books in the Bible but she did not. So she began creating “The Book of Sarah,” engaging her connection to Judaism with the visual, not just the textual. It has evolved into an ongoing project full of narrative self-portraits, studies of family photographs and diary drawings. As her Jewish identity was constantly evolving, she was able to find communities of Jewish artists with whom she could share experiences. This was a perfect way to achieve her goal of contributing to Jewish life and history through culture.

Looking forward, we can keep our eyes open for upcoming work from these women as well, most of whom seem to have at least one project on the horizon. Trina Robbins, writer and “herstorian” has been writing comics and books for over thirty years and recently finished scripting a graphic novel for all ages; it tells the true story of Lily Renee Wilheim Phillips, a teenage Jewish girl who escaped the Nazis.

Michael Kaminer hopes that this unique exhibit will help people gain a new perspective on how Jews continue to reinvent comics and shape this sophisticated form of storytelling. As artists, Jews have famously found innovative ways to manifest personal definitions of Jewish identity through artistic expression. While graphic artistry may seem like an underground phenomenon, the creative outlet has proven sufficient for Jewish women who have complex stories to tell and remarkable narratives through which to confess.

Abraham Yurberg: A Life In Art

By Chelsea Beroza

Walking into Abraham Yurberg’s retrospective at Ten43 Gallery is like walking into a moment trapped in time. Yurberg transports us through a lifetime of intense emotion and expression in the twenty-five paintings and twelve works on paper spanning the artist’s seventy-year career. It is incredible to consider that this exhibition marks the first time Yurberg has allowed his work to be shown since retreating from the public eye in 1967. Why he would hide such beauty from the world is unfathomable.

Upon entering the left side of the gallery is covered with colorful, deeply saturated paintings with heavy impasto representative of the Abstract Expressionist style. The works are hung in chronological order from the 1940s onward thus adding to the biographical narrative. On the right side of the gallery a series of drawings he created while fighting in World War II are on display. The drawings are wrought with conflict, as the young man experienced horrors of war while also trying to hold on to his own humanity. Faces and backgrounds are obscured creating a notion of displacement.  Both the paintings and drawings are visual memoirs from his past and although figural, his drawings suggest the abstraction he invokes later in life.

Born to a Jewish family in Poland in 1912, Abraham Yurberg immigrated to the United States with his family as a young boy where he was raised on New York’s Lower East Side. The harsh realities of the Depression prompted Yurberg to embrace the alternative reality offered by the city’s museums and galleries. When he started painting his style was defined by an emotional intensity. Following Yurberg’s first taste of critical success, he was drafted into the United States Army, serving on the front lines of Italy and North Africa. Art became a form of therapy when coping with the war’s trauma. As a Jewish soldier, his role in the war took on a more symbolic meaning. Not only was he fighting for his country, but also the lives of his people suffering under the most palpable evil the modern world had ever known. The works on paper during this time are evidence of his struggle to make sense of the war and the staggering loss of entire generations of Polish and German Jews.

The devastation and loss stayed with Yurberg upon returning to New York. He had difficulty confronting the horrors he experienced overseas and although he continued to show his work sporadically in exhibitions at Harry Salpeter Gallery, the British American Museum, The Riverside Museum and The Hanover Trust, in 1967 he retreated from the public eye completely though he continued to paint almost daily for the next forty-four years.

The paintings are a visual mapping of the artist’s emotional history. Yurberg’s art conflates the various stages of his life into a rhythmic pattern that breathes life and loss. Although specific to the artist’s experiences, his work also speaks to the shared history of the Jewish communities in New York and overseas. The Great Depression and World War II were the catalysts that drove his work.

Landing a solo gallery show so late in one’s career is not an easy task by any means. Yurberg’s obvious ambition so late in life speaks to a real need to share his artistic output. Yurberg honors the ghosts of his past and confronts them on the stark gallery walls with his brush, a moving tribute and catharsis for the 98 year old Polish immigrant.

Abraham Yurberg’s retrospective will be on view at Ten43 Gallery (1043 Madison Avenue New York, NY 10075) through February 19th, 2011. www.ten43gallery.com

An Ancient Synagogue in Damascus

By Samantha Sisskind

If you go to the Jewish Quarter of the Old City in Damascus, Syria, you’ll find hardly any obvious traces of Jewish life.  There remains a school that is unidentifiable as a Jewish institution, a few doors with the Star of David engraved in the granite lintel of the doorways, a small unobtrusive synagogue, abandoned houses and storefronts and some dusty narrow streets.  If you didn’t know it was there, it would be virtually unrecognizable as a relic of a once-vibrant Jewish community with a heritage and history centuries long. However, the major monument to Jewish life in the country lies in the National Museum of Syria, just a few minutes outside of the Old City. At the very end of the classical period wing, past the Greek, Roman and Palmyrene exhibits, you’ll find a reconstruction of a third century synagogue from the initially Syrian Greek city of Dura Europos, a trading hub along the Euphrates River. Not only will you see beautiful clay wall and ceiling tiles painted with flora and fauna, but also frescoes from the walls of the synagogue depicting scenes from the Torah and portraits of Abraham, Ezra and Moses.

The frescoes from the synagogue at Dura Europos tell a fascinating story of one of the first synagogues erected in the Jewish Diaspora. Hidden under a ramp built by the Persians at the end of the third century C.E., the synagogue’s frescoes were undisturbed for over fifteen hundred years afterward until its discovery by the British military in 1921. The style and character of the frescoes at the synagogue borrow from Hellenistic art, and the architecture draws from the dominant Byzantine religious art culture of the time of the temple’s construction. Of the four frescoed walls, the best preserved is the Western Wall, which benefited from the ramp’s direct protection and faces Jerusalem. Surrounding a permanent ark niche carved into the wall are paintings of David as the King over Israel; the Red Sea crossing; the infancy of Moses; the anointing of David; Solomon and the Queen of Sheba; the sacrifice of Isaac; Moses receiving the tablet and many other biblical stories. The lack of any archaeological evidence for a gender separation barrier in the prayer room makes the worship culture of the Dura Europos Jews even more curious and divergent from the traditional Jewish practices.

While artistic renditions of animals and scenes from the Torah have been found on Jewish artifacts from that time period, nothing of this magnitude and detail has ever been discovered.  Some scholars maintain that the Jews in Dura Europos were influenced by the decorated Christian churches in the same city and Dura Europos was home to several religious groups and tolerant of the faiths of all its residents.  Yet the more prevalent theory is that the synagogue was decorated and painted to resemble a Roman temple so that worshippers could avoid religious persecution.

On the surface, it appears that the Jews of Dura Europos diverted from their faith in order to avoid punishment from the Romans. However, upon second glance, they seem more like Hannah and her sons in the Hanukkah story, who refused to break the commandments or apostatize, even when faced with execution. Like them, the Jews of Dura Europos prayed under the Romans’ noses and defied Roman law in order to stay true to their Jewish heritage while they were far from the Holy Land.

The Dura Europos Jewish community’s beliefs and interpretations of the Torah remain a mystery to this day, but the synagogue is a monument to the development and transition of Jewish faith and practices in the Diaspora. It is a testament to the existence of Jewish life outside the Holy Land, and a rare example of the resilience of a Jewish community in the face of unfriendly foreign occupation.

Traveler’s Note: If you are able to pay a visit to Syria and you’d like to go to the National Museum in Damascus to see the frescoes from the synagogue at Dura Europos, don’t plan your trip for the upcoming year. The entire classical wing is currently closed for renovations, and a few other exhibits are closed for renovations as well. Visiting to the ruins themselves may be slightly disappointing as little remains but rocky foundations, and would require much imagination to picture the city as it once was. However, viewing the museum in Damascus first and then traveling to the historical site near the modern town of Salhieh will give you more context and insight, and would be a much more educational and beneficial experience.

This article referenced the book “Dura Europos,” written by Bashir Zahdi and published by the National Museum of Syria in Damascus, as well as a very well synthesized and researched article analyzing the historical significance of the art and architecture of the synagogue.

The Narrow Line Between Expression and Insult

By Merav Levkowitz

A number of Israeli artists have signed a letter proposing to boycott a cultural center set to open shortly in Ariel, a Jewish settlement beyond the Green Line. The boycott has sparked much controversy among the artist community and in Knesset. Some Knesset members have expressed disappointment with these Israeli artists who have received government funding and have used their public platform to criticize and, in some cases, de-legitimize Israel. Members like Yariv Levin and Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat have recommended that restrictions be extended to government-funded artists and cultural institutions.

This tense situation brings forth a variety of important issues. On one hand, the outrage of some Knesset members towards these government-funded artists makes perfect sense. A venture capitalist who supports a fledging start-up would not be pleased to find the start-up defaming him publicly. Likewise, Israeli taxpayers have a right to express concern about where their funding goes and to disapprove supporting bodies that criticize or even threaten them. Ironically, the residents of Ariel themselves pay the taxes that support many of the artists boycotting their cultural center and the settlement itself. As Knesset member Otniel Schneller stated, “The artists’ apartheid letter, which boycotts Israeli citizens, not only does not promote national willingness to achieve peace, but also pushes it away.  Ariel, as a settlement bloc, will be included in any peace agreement within the borders of the state. Every big party leader must stress to artists who receive the Israel Prize [a government-awarded prize for excellence in four different fields] where the peaceful borders of the State of Israel are to pass.”

On the other hand, the fact that government-funded artists are free to do as they please with their sponsorship is a sign that Israel remains a vibrant democracy. Diverse opinions among citizens and the freedom to express them distinguish Israel from many of her neighbors. Tighter restrictions on artists and cultural institutions could challenge some of this openness. Furthermore, such constraints risk narrowing Israel’s vibrant public art scene. While denying artists funding does not stop them from creating art in protest of the country—and may even encourage them to further do so—it can impede them.  In so doing, it limits the creative face Israel shows to the world, exposing only a small part of its diverse mosaic, its beliefs and expressions.

This controversy is not limited to the world of art, but rather can be extended to any government-sponsored public figures and images. It seems reasonable for sponsors to demand certain criteria of those they support, but it is difficult to know where to draw the line on such criteria.   Politically motivated restrictions risk stifling art and even the democratic freedom Israel prides itself on.

The Hidden Israel

By Symi Rom-Rymer

A chubby young African boy dressed head-to-toe in an Israeli police officer’s uniform looks defiantly into the camera.  A teenage girl in a pink room solemnly faces the camera under her hijab.  A transvestite clad in a rhinestone studded bra and panties dances with abandon in a Jerusalem night club.  These are the faces of another, less visible Israel.  Their stories and struggles are often overshadowed by the sexier tales of relentless violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  But for one night, African guest workers and their children, Arab Israelis, members of the transgendered community and other marginalized groups are the center of attention.

The Envisioning Justice exhibit featuring Israel’s marginalized groups was part of a social justice-themed benefit for the New Israel Fund, a New York-based non-profit organization that focuses on civil society and social justice issues in Israel.  The curator of the exhibit, Deborah Plum, is a co-founder of Omanoot, a multimedia arts organization that uses contemporary Israeli art to bring people together.  I recently sat down with Deborah to talk with her about Omanoot and the thought-provoking exhibit she put together.

Why start Omanoot?  What does it have to offer people today?
Art has become intimidating.  Beautiful things have become so challenging for people.  Art galleries are competing with YouTube and free music and it’s very hard for people to make time for it.  When I went into Omanoot, I really wanted to create this organization that people could use as their outlet, to help people connect to art in an authentic way.   We’re trying to be this bridge between the Jewish and Israeli non-profit world /organizational world.  We’re not tied to specific political cause, religious organization, medium or theme.  We’re trying to bring together new energy [and] speak to people who aren’t as hooked in.

What was your vision for the benefit show?
I really wanted to create a voice for artists who care about social justice issues and who deal with them in their art and personal lives and do so in a very personal way.  The goal was not just to show minorities and their subjugation, not just about their sadness, but rather to show the complexity of it.  For instance, Gil Lavi [an internationally

Swings by Gil Lavi

renowned photographer] did a series of photos in Sderot.  What drew me to those photos was that it was about Sderot.  Not about Sderot being bombed or about the State not taking care of the town, but about the place itself.  It showed Russian immigrants living there and happy to be there.  It wasn’t about the statistics.  I loved those photos.  I think it was my inspiration for the whole show.

One piece, by Chen Yerushalmi, dealt with the notions of layered identities through masks.  Can you talk about why that was important to you to include in the show?
I wanted to come across for women’s rights, not just Arab women’s rights, but all women’s rights.  Yerushalmi’s piece was interesting because how much of it was about the masks we wear.  The identities we cling to—woman, Israeli–what does that mean beyond the superficial?  How does that impact you as a person?  In some ways, they minimize the role that these identifiers should play.  At the end, it’s just you.  In terms of female identity, Israel is such a patriarchal society.  Her piece is not negative or positive, but it is such a beautiful expression of those views.

What about the photos of transvestites by Tanya Habjouqa?  What did those offer?
I wanted to include those pictures because they [the subjects] were so happy.  Here was a club in Jerusalem full of Palestinians and Israelis who were partying together.  These were dancing, smiling pictures of coexistence in its purist form.  I really pushed for them because I felt that a lot of the photos that I had seen were of ceremonies or parades or vigils for those who had been hurt.  I didn’t want to show parades, I just wanted to show life.

Many of the pieces brought up topics that I didn’t know about such as African migrant workers and Darfurian refugees.   Do you feel Americans in general don’t know as much about these issues?
Not just Americans.   Some Israelis also are unaware.  Israel is always in a situation.  It’s always focused on Palestinian-Israeli issues.  I wanted to show other issues that probably impact them on a daily basis.  Israel needs workers.  They’ve closed the doors to Gaza and so they have to import people. Ilan [Spira] is really the first photographer to give these people a voice.  To document the Filipino workers in the bus station, for instance.  He’s used his photos to argue their cases in court.  He’s dedicated his life to making this issue public.

What do you see that art can offer in terms of addressing difficult topics like the ones in the show?
I think that it’s very emotional, when presented properly.  Art is very personal and can be seen from so many different angles and associations.  For me, visual memory resonates.  Now when I read a newspaper piece about migrant workers, I have the image of that little boy in a police costume.  They’re part of my dialogue.  There’s no expiration date on your experience.

What did you want people to get out of the show?
I hope it left them thinking, “Maybe I should learn more about migrant workers or about women in Israel or about Arab Israeli citizens.”  And I hope that for people who didn’t see art as a way to experience this topic, this show changed their minds.  In our obsession with the internet to connect with everything, we forget how much else there is.  If they’re intimidated [by art], I hope that it broke some of those barriers.  I heard people talking about the art and asking questions and it was so inspiring.

Although the exhibit was up for only one night, the artists’ work can be seen in galleries around the world as well as on their own websites.  To find out more, please visit the NIF benefit page, the Omanoot website, or click on the artists’ names above.

Photo Credits: “Chen’s Mask” Photography by Adam Cohen; “Asylum” by Ahikam Seri

Symi Rom-Rymer writes and blogs about Jewish and Muslim communities in the US and Europe.

Crazy New Tel-Aviv Port

By Benjamin Schuman-Stoler

Not sure how we missed this, but we recently saw some pics of the new Tel-Aviv port, designed by Israeli firm Mayslits Kassif Architects in collaboration with Galila Yavin, and it blew us away. We caught the pics, of all places, on Kanye West’s blog. West and worldarchitecturenews.com had this to say:

Situated on one of Israel’s most breathtaking waterfronts, the Tel Aviv Port was plagued with neglect since 1965, when its primary use as an operational docking port was abandoned. The recently completed public space development project by Mayslits Kassif Architects, managed to restore this unique part of the city, and turn it into a prominent, vivacious urban landmark.

The architects saw the Tel Aviv Port project as an opportunity to construct a public space which challenges the common contrast between private and public development, and suggests a new agenda of hospitality for collective open spaces.

The design introduces an extensive undulating, non-hierarchical surface that acts both as a reflection of the mythical dunes on which the port was historically built, and as an open invitation to free interpretations and unstructured activities. Various public, political and social initiatives are now drawn to this unique urban platform, indicating the project’s success in reinventing the port as a vibrant public sphere.

You have to love the headline to West’s post. Somehow “Peep the Ground!” feels aptly Israeli for some reason.

ITM readers, have you seen the port since it opened? Or if not, what do you think of the photos?

Photos by Kanye West via Mayslits Kassif Architects

Bookmark and Share