Announcements

Pleased to be participating in the exhibition HOME(less) at HUC-JIR Museum NY. Running through the end of June 2018. Would love to hear from you if you get to see the exhibit. For details see post

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Ruth Kestenbaum Ben-Dov at Artspace Gallery

Ruth Kestenbaum Ben-Dov, The Painter and the Hassid, 2008, diptych, oil on canvas, 80 x 60 cm, 32” x 24”

 
The bustle of traffic on the cafĂ©-crammed and ironically–named Emek Refaim Street (Valley of the Ghosts) is unfelt in the German Colony’s Artspace Gallery. Only a short block away, Linda Zisquit’s gallery is a haven for fans of contemporary painting.   Zisquit, originally from Buffalo, N.Y., a published poet who writes in her native English, runs her gallery in the sunny entrance of her high-ceilinged home. It is here that she hosts artist friends, artists in their debut exhibits and established names amidst her library and baby grand piano. 

The current exhibit by Ruth Kestenbaum Ben-Dov, this artist’s second solo exhibit in this venue,  is one which in which a number of concerns intersect: the challenges of the creative life, the remembrance of Holocaust victims, the ability to connect with one’s spiritual or creative antecedents from another time, the legacy of creativity that continues beyond the life of the creator, an examination of doubts and faith, and the recording of one’s own artistic journey. A cerebral and sensitive series of paintings comprise the exhibit, “The Painter and the Hassid,” which has occupied the artist over the course of three years.

Ben-Dov, an American-born graduate of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, has created a visual encounter between two Holocaust victims, who, though unacquainted in their lives, shared having hidden their creative works before being taken to their deaths and having had their creative legacies discovered posthumously. This imaginary encounter between Malva Schalek, a Prague-born painter, and Kalonymous Schapiro, a Polish rabbi, and Kestenbaum Ben-Dov’s interaction with their memories  is illustrated thoughtfully in diptychs and paintings which draw on certain of their respective works: in her case a young boy’s portrait; in his case, his cramped writings. 

Holocaust remembrance is a tough subject. Only in 2010, did the Yad Vashem art museum mount an exhibit of art created by Holocaust survivors in post-war times. “Virtues of Memory,”  a moving array of works from the most professional and famous of artists to works by the most ordinary and undistinguished of artists. The common thread in that exhibit was having lived through those unimaginable years – the image being a kind of visual testimony.

One may suggest that art relating to the Holocaust entails a factor of being too horrible - that the viewer may be repelled by the subject, by the enormity of the terribleness.   Western art history is replete with examples of very difficult subjects, from  Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment,” to Gericault’s “Raft of the  Medusa,” from  Goya’s  “Shootings of the Third of May,” to  Picasso’s “Guernica.” Arguably, these are some of the most powerful images addressing  the fragility of mankind. Another factor associated with art derived from the Holocaust is that it falls into the category of "victim's" art- putting it in the same basket as art by victims of rape, breast cancer, slavery, gay prejudice and other human afflictions. To my mind,  if there is artistic value in the works,  neither the harshness of the subject matter nor the motivation for creating them should matter. (And, I might add, in the world of commercial galleries, "bad art" is promoted as fashionably avant-garde).

Ben-Dov is further removed from the historical events than the artists who themselves lived through those times. This, perhaps, eases the sharpness of describing the indescribable. The works leave room for personally engaging this subject in a manner directed by the artist. In “Unfinished – After a Portrait of a Boy by Malka Schalek,” Ben-Dov appropriates the image of a Schalek portrait and over the course of eight small canvases his portrait incrementally disappears, ending in a blank canvas, a concretization of  this individual's passing, one amongst the throngs who were “erased,” as Ben-Dov says.

Facing her subject straight on in “Do I Really Want to Paint?” Ben-Dov incorporates a portrait of the painter, Schalek, writings of the Hasid, Ben-Dov’s standing full body self-portrait, and three images from art history, including cave paintings and a Rembrandt self-portrait. Many artists will identify with the expression of normally submerged self- doubts questioning the validity the individual may feel when feeling dwarfed amongst the great in the chain of art history, or, as here, against the dedication of creators working in the direst of circumstances compounded by the anxiety as to whether their works will ever be seen. 

Ruth Kestenbaum Ben-Dov, Do I Really Want to Paint? 2009, oil on canvas, 165 x 155 cm, 65” x 61”

For the artist who works in isolation, perhaps working years in between exhibits, it is not uncommon to ponder the philosophical when considering whether the compulsion to create and the object created suffices, or whether the artist's audience is a necessary third facet in the creative process (If a book is written and never read, did it exist?  If a canvas is painted and never seen, is there a point in creating it?).  Here, where the creators worked under existential threats, Ben-Dov displays her admiration for their perseverance in abnormal circumstances while confronting her own internal battles.

A minor point:  Ben-Dov has created a style in which parts of the painting are diffused, sometimes dissolving into much undefined space, and other sections are in over-focus. Apparently meant to evoke a sense of other-worldliness or perhaps mystique, this does not usually detract. There are individual works where the emphasis on precision, particularly on the eyes of the subject- down to the twinkle, may not always be in the best service of the painting as a whole. 

Something to consider.

(continuing through July by appointment).


Thursday, June 9, 2011

He Was Nature: Courbet

Courbet, "Le Chateu d'Ornans," 1864, oil on canvas, 65 X 81 cm, private collection
Back to Paris.     

Jackson Pollock famously said "I am Nature," but the artist whose work really embodies that statement is Courbet.  Courbet threw off classicism and romanticism. Rejecting the easy and pretty art of his time, he devoted himself to a lifetime of working directly from nature.  

The Mona Bismarck Foundation has hosted, “Gustave Courbet and the Love of Nature” which focused on Courbet’s engagement with nature, but also with Courbet the man. 

There were the expected landscape paintings – beautiful depictions of carefully observed nature. His goal was not to duplicate nature, rather to funnel through it his own creativity:

“To know in order to create---this was my purpose. To be able to interpret the customs, ideas, and point of view of my time according to my own frame of reference: in a word, to make art lifelike, this is my objective. (1855, Courbet, from “painters on Painting,” edited by E. Protter, Dover, 1997).
Courbet, "Paysage Rocheux," 1872, oil on canvas, 27 X 32 cm, private collection

As the exhibit turns to Courbet himself, we see memorabilia, personal effects (including his pipes), news reports of the day surrounding some of his more outrageous stunts, and works by peers in homage to him.


Louis Moullin (1817-1875) "Gustave Courbet a` Trouville," 1865, black ink and wash, white gouache, 18 X 25 cm
  

The bad boy of his day, Courbet managed to butt heads with the establishment of the art world, the political world and certainly the church.  New to me was his “protest” art for, lack of a better description. 





Courbet, "La Saga de la Conference - La Bataille en la Defenestration," 1868, traces of oil on wood panel painted black,  60 X 77 cm 


This is one of a group of three drawings which depict his documentation of the arrival of priests at an inn from their religious conference. The first image depicts their arrival, this, the second, their drunken brawl and the third the aftermath of their debauchery. 
He was a man who could not bend the truths as he saw them. In 1870, he wrote to the Minister of the Beaux Arts rejecting the proffered recognition of being named the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, saying,
“ …I am fifty years old and I have always lived as a free man.  Let me be free for the rest of my days, for when I die, let it be said of me: ‘He never belonged to any school, to any church, to any institution, to any academy –least of all to any regime, lest it be the regime of liberty.’ (E. Protter).”
Rare today to find an art celeb reject recognition.

The exhibit just closed, but those in the neighborhood might want to stop into this small museum gem, which shows changing special exhibits. Housed in a villa of a former American ex-pat socialite overlooking the Seine, it is a respite from  the crush of the crowds in other larger museums. The catalog of the exhibit is likely to still be available which was published in French as well as in English.



Courbet, "Les Roches Noires  a` Trouville," 1866, oil on canvas 32 x 55 cm, private collection

Photos of images above by Heddy Abramowitz

Monday, June 6, 2011

What Do You Get When You Cross the Israeli Flag with Breslov Hasidim?

"Map of Jerusalem" 1581 Heinrich Bunting


Jerusalem Day

This week marked the 44th anniversary of the re-unification of Jerusalem.  For locals, it is not unusual to have a sense that Jerusalem seems like the center of the world. This 1581 map by Heinrich Bunting proves that our times were not the only ones to sense this. For better or worse, with all of the attention Jerusalem gets in the international press and in the halls of the United Nations,  it seems that the world still agrees with this assessment. 

This past week, during which thousands converged on the Old City in celebration of Jerusalem Day,  I didn’t have to go far to discover this.  It is a storefront for the Hasidic sect of Breslov Hasidim where they  took an Israeli flag and wrote on it their mantra, “Nah, nach, …”, with a happy face in the center of the Star of David. Anyone in Israel recognizes their ubiquitous slogan which appears on all manner of public buildings, bumper stickers and so forth.

"Jerusalem Day 2011"  Jewish Quarter,  Heddy Abramowitz

This concrete combining of religious and state symbols, brought to my mind odd hybrids. This could be the street art embodiment of the “strange bedfellows” of party politics.  You can’t make this stuff up.