|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 café-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.
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).