Friday, February 5, 2016

Loud Whispers: Renana Laub at Artists' House

Like sotto voce hisses meant to be heard, Renana Laub presents her first solo exhibit Whispers at the Jerusalem Artists’ House, part of the Nidbach series in the entry-level space that is devoted to debut exhibits.

Whispers shows the visual expressions of inner thoughts, half-thoughts, and murmurings which seem to percolate from just beneath the artist’s skin.

Laub, a recent graduate of Emunah College, focuses on “the possible space between innocence and the wild.” Curator Maya Israel  notes that the artist is examining the edges of life, conservation, and withering:

"The attempt to conserve and repair emphasizes the gap between the world of the living and the world of the dead."
Without having read the exhibition notes, I responded to it more as an exploration of erotic awakenings within the constraints of a conventional world. Perhaps subconsciously, this theme comes through as well.

Dear Girl 2014 Mixed media Renana Laub

The far wall of the exhibit is entirely wall-papered by a reproduction of a Moshe Castel painting altered by Laub showing a brushy wedding dress, or spirit, which engulfs the whole setting, unites the exhibit, and sets the tone as one anchored in tradition. Laub stretches the borders of the two-dimensional through found objects and confidant extensions of images, inviting us into her world.

Her journals and sketch pads are open for perusal. We can observe the chains of thought that lead to her more developed works. She includes the stains of Sabbath challah bread on parchment papers and finds in the remnants of her baking a stepping stone in her search. Jerusalem artist Motte Brim recently exhibited works from the same source of inspiration at this venue.

She conjoins dead fish shells, classic paintings, children’s story illustrations, red blossoms, dry twigs, bridal gowns, with red threads and red resin pulling the eye across the room from piece to piece. Paradoxically, the reds that guide us from work to work recall Corot, an artist who dealt predominantly with visual observation. He was known to include red points to bring the eye through his paintings, as one would “follow the reds.” In Laub’s approach the image is an initial jumping-off point to reach deep within to what is felt.

A shallow terrarium created in the deep window ledge of the building’s Ottoman era window, echoes the rhythms she created in the room, which includes a tree-like object created from a twig that is repeated in some of the works. The live plants in this miniaturized space are grasses sprung from the raw earth, but in this garden of bonsai proportions they evoke wider and wilder open spaces.

The small expanse is echoed inside a re-purposed wooden cuckoo clock in the adjacent room (which could have benefited by some additional lighting). The normal is reversed; the outdoors comes into the house-like setting, as if uncontrolled nature has taken over domesticity and as we peek in we become voyeurs.

Dear Girl 2014 Mixed media Renana Laub

Associations bounce between the optimism of white wedding dresses and new beginnings set-off by blood-like stains, perhaps referencing virginal sex or violence; red threads which evoke symbols of either good fortune or protection from evil; dried twigs, plant remains, empty fish bones are shards of decay and absence.

Though Laub speaks softly in Whispers, she is carrying a big emotional and visual stick, leaving the viewer with much to ponder.

Jerusalem Artists’ House

Gallery Talk 18.2.2016 5 pm
Closing 27.2.2016

This was originally published on the Times of Israel here or

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Holocaust Remembrance: Dugo Does it with Falafel

Stone on Loan I, Shlomo Feig 2008 graphite, sumi ink on paper 65 cm X 50 cm
© 2016 by Heddy Abramowitz 

International Holocaust Remembrance Day is upon us. This relatively new day in the international calendar, passed by UN resolution in 2005, falls on the day that the notorious death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, was liberated by Soviet troops, January 27, 1945.

Current events seem to hurtle at me like a rain-swelled river that is rushing and pushing beyond its banks. A convergence of items drew my attention. Angela Merkel, the mama of open arms welcoming the Arab refugees with generous government giveaways came out with this statement, as reported in Times of Israel here:

“Anti-Semitism is more widespread than we imagined. And that is why we must act intensively against it,” Merkel, who on Monday will inaugurate an exhibition in Berlin titled “The Art of the Holocaust,” said in her weekly video podcast.  
Ya think? I don’t know what I find more appalling, the ignorance, feigned or otherwise, of one of the leaders of the free world to the depth of the oldest hatred, or that the leader happens to be the German Chancellor.

Merkel, is one of the more strident amongst world leaders in naming the evil that is on her doorstep. Her statement comes on the tails of the re-publication of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, a mere 70 years after the Holocaust, still within the lives of many protagonists and surviving victims. But, not to worry, now you can read the mad man’s words with annotation to fill in the context for you for the Weltanschauung that was responsible for the murder of millions, innocents, predominately Jews, in the name of a dark ideology. It sold out within hours its first day on the shelves. If these readers are as lazy about reading as I once was, those annotations will hardly be noticed, thus bringing the nefarious message of the original to new and younger audiences.

Should she really want to understand the depths of antisemitism, I suggest that she and her parliamentarians start wearing Jewish symbols. Star of David necklaces, yarmulkes, kippot, and hair coverings will be an instant way to heighten awareness, as was briefly undertaken this month by two French parliamentarians in protest of the call for Jews to cease identifying outwardly with their religion.

And less than two weeks ago, Iran, after signing the much-touted nuclear pact promoted by Obama, Kerry, and their European partners, sponsored a contest for cartoons denying the Holocaust. With a $50,000 grand prize, that is no laughing matter. Just when I think crassness has reached its limits, I am newly surprised. Oh yes, the same Iran that is the focus of a coming US policy of normalization.

I wonder whether it is just me that connects the dots. Normalization with Cuba, a poor country not yet propped up as it once was in the Cold War by the USSR is not the same as normalization with Iran, with a nuclear program in (apparent) hiatus, and huge sanction sums now released back into its economy, an active aggressor in the Middle East and exporter of terrorism worldwide. This same Iran vocally and publicly calls for the annihilation of Israel. Call me Chicken Little, but my internal red flags are waving wildly.

Among the innocents who were murdered in the Holocaust that is marked today were my maternal grandparents, my mother’s 6-year old twin sisters (never becoming old enough to become my aunts) who were murdered at the hands of the depraved Dr. Mengele as part of his ’research,’ aunts, uncles, cousins, and nameless and faceless relations now lost to memory. Those were the ones who were burned on the pyre of Aryan philosophy. Official ceremonies, wreath-laying, and museums cannot bring them back. And the evil that led to their deaths is being resuscitated. Even Angela Merkel noticed.

What about the ones who lived? It should go without saying that the brutality of those times was inhumane and beyond comprehension.

Some people became broken, some became embittered, and some very special people learned to be optimistic and loving.

My mother who survived Auschwitz was emotionally scarred for life. Yet, she lived, had a family, and rebuilt her life from nothing.

My own grandfather, Shlomo Feig. z”l, was on the same death march as Dugo in the clip below, and was killed, shot by a Nazi soldier, two days before liberation, on January 25, 1945. Above is a drawing I made in his memory from my series "Stone on Loan." I used a rubbing from a cemetery headstone in Prague to serve as a substitute head stone for him, who had no permanent resting place. That was all I could do to serve his memory.

Another way is to rejoice in life.

And so we find inspiration in a falafel stand in Ashdod. "The People of Israel Lives Is Content and Eats Falafel." So says one Dugo of Ashdod, originally Duvid of Bulgaria. This week he felt himself privileged to celebrate his survival of the most deadly of the death marches, from Auschwitz-Birkenau on January 18, 1945.

How does one celebrate a personal miracle? On the anniversary of that day last week, Dugo invited all comers to join him and eat falafel at his stand to celebrate life. In the short video clip of the occasion,  his glowing face is shown, referring to all the kids and adults as all his children, delighting in the joy of sharing his good fortune to have survived. He shows his innate humor and optimism when rolling up his sleeve to reveal not one but two tattoos on his left forearm. The story of how he got them is not shared, only joking that it was a two-for-one special. Singing “The People of Israel Lives” ("Am Yisroel Chai") and noting the correlation of the word chai, meaning life, with the number 18, which symbolizes life in Hebrew, as he marks the 18th of January as a confirmation of full stomachs, happiness, and sharing his love for his people.

Though the clip, produced and directed by Yankele Klein, is in Hebrew, it needs no translation to understand the outpouring of support and love for him from his steady clientele who joined him in dancing and singing, and, especially eating.

When I think of the headlines and news stories of the day and the foreboding I have about the future I gain comfort from people like Dugo who manage to bring optimism and appreciation to their lives, despite harsh turns, and even in light of bleak news with echoes of the bad old days.

Dugo is an inspiration. Next year in Ashdod.

This post was originally published on Times of  Israel here or:

Monday, January 18, 2016

Will the Real Me Stand Up? Tannhauser and Drori at Barbur Gallery


Self Portrait Crying, 120 x 85 cm oil on canvas 2015 by Nomi Tannhauser

Nomi Tannhauser and Adva Drori joined forces recently to create a two-person exhibit, Cindyrella, at Jerusalem's Barbur Gallery.

The exhibit was a sort of homage to Cindy Sherman, the influential American photographer who dressed-up as changed personas in Film Noir-influenced self-portraits shown in her exhibit Untitled Film Stills 1977-80 (the full set acquired by MOMA).

Those photographs were ground-breaking and have since become contemporary classics. As curator Pesach Slabosky noted in the exhibit catalogue: 

“It is always a woman alone: she is an ordinary person caught in a drama not of her own making. ...What I had not known was the extent to which the work of Cindy Sherman is iconic for women.”

The title Cindyrella makes reference both to the fairy tale which contrasts to the harsh reality of some childhoods, and refers to the art world idol that is an unseen presence in this exhibit. Artists from two generations, one Sherman's peer, the other decades younger, both found much to draw from her work.

Tannhauser often engages in subject matter concerning women and their bodies, the covered and the revealed, and the ways formal painting concerns (e.g. flat or with brush stokes, painting thinly or in impasto) may overlap with social issues she feels they symbolize; the strong versus the weak, men compared with women. Here she showed paintings influenced by Sherman’s photography, based on a palette of intentionally-ironic pinks, creams, and golds.

Paradoxically, Sherman herself was once a painting student, and turned to photography as her preferred medium ostensibly due to frustrations she saw in the limitations of painting, saying later 
"[T]here was nothing more to say [through painting]. I was meticulously copying other art and then I realized I could just use a camera and put my time into an idea instead.”
Tannhauser turned the tables yet again, taking her inspiration from Sherman’s conceptual still photos, and reinterpreting them as oil paintings, in a sense reverting to the medium once rejected by Sherman. No meticulous copies were shown, the works explored her own identity. She showed herself variously as an artist at work; a woman portrayed in front of a typical shikun building (brutal social architecture of the 50's) with all the windows ominously barred; as a woman capriciously holding a pencil (instead of a cigarette), set in a chair over a patterned carpet and  speckled, once-ubiquitous floor tiles, a stylized still portrait of her mother looking on, and so on. She let go of close observation and used a simplified graphic approach to find a pared-down and strong representation of herself, a good new direction for Tannhauser.
Kitchen Towel oil on canvas 2015 by Nomi Tannhauser Photo: Bishko

The search for the real Nomi included studies of simple kitchen towels set off against gold paint – at once glamorously raising the mundane object and also seeing it for its most basic geometric shapes, while considering the towels as emblematic of the kitchen, a room that becomes a cul-de-sac for many.

Installation view Barbur Gallery 2015-16 Photo: Bishko

Performance artist Adva Drori took the influence of Sherman off the walls entirely in her work Doll-Woman-Doll with objects culled from flea markets and other sources, making theatrical groupings set on oriental-style carpets or mattresses. These indicated a troubled inner world despite being based on playthings and toy-sized objects. They made for tableaux that dealt with an uncomfortable confusion of memory and identity. Red yarn and embroidery embellished the adult and doll-sized dresses and served as unifying color which pulled together the mostly floor-level displays.

Tannhauser’s paintings can stand on their own, and while Drori’s installations further extend the examination of girls’ and women’s places in the world, they also fought to get one’s attention in the space. A sense of emotional clutter and unease pervaded.

Exhibiting in Jerusalem gave another context to the position of women in society. One could reflect on the times Sherman drew from and from the time her photos were first exhibited, and compare them with the world the artists’ live in, replete with fears and lack of stability. Tannhauser considers the shikun building and the limited lives of the original inhabitants, poor refugees from surrounding Arab countries, but now a building in a gentrified and trendy neighborhood, a happy ending. One could widen the comparisons to close-by Arab or haredi communities, where women continue to have limited options. All is not yet rosy.

For many women, there is room to stand up and self-identify with more surety and less contrivance and posturing than Sherman’s original subjects required, allowing Tannhauser and others to "breathe," as she describes it, just knowing there are more out there like her.

Sherman’s legacy, in a sense, could be recognizing that it does not take a fairy godmother to make changes, one can grant oneself the permission to change identity as needed for the many stages in a life, or just for no reason at all.

A fairy-tale ending in itself.

This was originally published on the Times of Israel here or here:

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Artist Statement for A Fine Line Exhibit in the Jerusalem Biennale 2015

Street Wise, digital prints 2012 ©2015 by Heddy Abramowitz

  חוכמת רחוב 

Street photography, I feel, gives a true-to-the-moment picture of the preoccupations of its residents. Graffiti, all the more so – we absorb these markings as the backdrop of city life.
The eye of a photographer must select a focus, blocking out all else. A photographer’s role is like that of a landscape painter – both must select what goes into the frame or format. The amount of information hurtling towards a street photographer can be overwhelming. What interests me? The tall buildings and the city skyline? Or this one piece of Hebrew writing on a neglected city wall?

For me, a transplanted American, seeing Hebrew graffiti is something of a wonder. My preconceptions of Jerusalem were of rolling pastoral hills and not what I really found when I arrived, a city with buildings from yesteryear trying to primp themselves to keep up with the times with a bit of rouge and too bright lipstick. I try and break some of the conventions of Jerusalem as I seek subject matter reflecting the working city of today with an undercurrent of its deep history.

These quickly spray-painted images from templates or scrawled by hand, speak to the most central understanding of civil interaction between people – Derech Eretz Kadma l’Torah. Regardless of the issue of the day, the unknown writer declares that common human decency, derech eretz, precedes Torah. 

This message was spray-painted up and down Jaffa Road from the Davidka Square to Machaneh Yehuda in 2012. As in ancient times, this is a main commercial artery of Jerusalem. The writer brought this message from rabbinic teachings straight into the heart of daily life. 

As with much of what is directly in front of us, this statement could easily be overlooked, yet is at the essence of our social contract. Before getting into the fine-tuning of climbing the spiritual ladder through Torah learning, first we need to be good people one to the other. Or, as I heard growing up, sei a mensch, be a human being. Without that, there is no common starting point.

Here I have contrasted this message with different contexts, each further expands it. Seeing it against a photograph of a billboard commemorating the founders of a school in downtown Jerusalem from a hundred years ago, both school and the generations long gone, helps illustrate its timelessness. 

In a second juxtaposition, the young girl walking along past portraits of people from all walks of life – she neither notices them nor they her. We look directly into their eyes, and again ask, what binds us one to another but human decency?

The next pair of photographs, show the same slogan enlarged on a wall, with the added line – "If there is no Torah, there can be no derech eretz (human decency)." Is this a philosophical question of the chicken or the egg variety? One senses that this message includes a veiled warning, don’t encroach on priorities. The graffiti style mimics a cartoon face but the messages, seemingly one in reaction to the other, are serious.

The dynamic life of the slogan continues in the fourth photograph, where the most recent addition to the wall is done in fire engine red: "Warning: Live Fire Zone." This phrase coming from the military is placed in the middle of the wall conversation. It adds a sense of urgency, it adds a layer of military lingo to rabbinic phrases, it adds the blatant admonition that this is shaky and unstable ground, and could be explosive.

It is in these small, private declarations that an individual can reach out to a stranger and perhaps strike a chord, for the briefest of moments, that may garner a reaction; perhaps causing a little jiggle in their outlook.  Like flowers with a short life, graffiti blossoms on unobtrusive walls quickly and, in the dynamics of city life, fades, gets painted, or covered by a poster. I record these markings to document the social pulse of earthly Jerusalem.

A Fine Line 
curated by Dr. Susan N. Fraiman
45 Emek Refaim St. 
Achim Hasid Complex
Sept 26 - Nov 5

I am exhibiting in another exhibit at the same venue.
A Sense of  Space, A Sense of Place
Curated by Mallory Serebrin
web page here and  (more to come after the opening).
To hear an interview and a statement on the Crossroads works see here.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Jerusalem Biennale 2015 Invitation

The Jerusalem Biennale 2015 is right around the corner. This is the second time that Jerusalem will be the host city for Contemporary Jewish Art with exhibits running in venues in central Jerusalem from September 24 - November 5.

I am very excited to be participating in two of the exhibitions, A Fine Line, curated by Dr. Susan Fraiman, and A Sense of Space/A Sense of Place curated by Mallory Serebrin.

Both exhibitions will be opening on Saturday night, September 26th at 8:30 pm. The exhibits will be at the Achim Hasid Complex at 47 Emek Refaim Street in Jerusalem's beautiful German Colony.

I very much hope to see you there.

And best wishes to all for a very joyous, happy, healthy and peaceful New Year.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Yerushalmi Café Culture

Bar Stools with Pedals, Café Agronsky © 2015 by Heddy Abramowitz

It’s hot, it’s August. Taking it easy.

A delight of warm weather is popping into places otherwise seen from the window of a vehicle. We are less rushed, the days are longer, serendipity takes over.

So it was recently when I stuck my head into a coffee shop named Agronsky after the owner Sonia Agronsky and fortuitously located on — wait for it — Agron Street. An immigrant from Moscow, Sonia started this place three years ago — its neighbors include the US Consulate for Commercial Affairs, a monastery, a bicycle repair shop, and the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Lacking an exterior sign, this odd hidden gem is in plain view. Does it get any better?

In style, this is as low key as its neighbor a few steps east, the Waldorf, is HIGH. Where the Waldorf plays to the pretentious, Agronsky plays to the casual. Where the Waldorf caters to the highest standards of religious pedigrees, Agronsky posts a wall-size cartoon answering any kashrut questions with: we observe tradition. ‘Nuff said.

I don’t usually engage in reporting on food establishments, there are blogs aplenty that do. No, this is about art.

Immediately, I was charmed. The high bar stools have foot rests that are bicycle pedals, in a nod to its  closest neighbor, the repair shop that goes back at least 4 decades.

Clock Café Agronsky © 2015 by Heddy Abramowitz

The wall clock ticks the day away in a mélange of re-purposed objects that are design museum worthy.

Muffin Cakes, Café Agronsky © 2015 by Heddy Abramowitz

The iced coffee was fine and made by Sonia on the spot. I perused the muffin-type cakes made in-house. But that was the end of my menu exploration. The high-ceilinged coffee shop has a bar for indoor seating and a couple of small tables in and outside.

With a view of Independence Park and the newly-opened franchise coffee shop done in the latest of restaurant fashions, this is an off-the-beaten-track find smack in the middle of the beaten track. Its across-the-street competitor will surely soon be packed, but if I were a visitor to Jerusalem (or the local that I am) I would turn my back on the latest version of fungible establishments on Agron and in the close-by Mamilla Mall and choose instead Agronsky for its unique vibe.

Mural detail by Daniella Schnitzer, Café Agronsky © 2015 by Heddy Abramowitz

The entire left wall of the café is dedicated to the unfolding of a whimsical collage of hand-drawn illustrations by artist Daniella Schnitzer. This work-in-progress is meant to be a mural of Jerusalem, with an eye to the mundane and the miraculous. Her keen observations zero in on many different aspects of daily life in Jerusalem and visitors to the café will enjoy watching it grow.

Coffee, a quiet corner, and a philosophical-humorous art work in progress. A bit like having a front row seat for a mini-Sistine Chapel. Without the neck strain.


Opening hours of Agronsky:
sunday to thursday: 07:30 am - 23:00 pm
friday: 07:30 am untill 1h before Shabbat
saturday: motzei Shabbat

This post was originally published on the Times of Israel: