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Artists explore Jewish identity through TRADITION!

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 6, 2012 - An array of works in a variety of media decorates the Regional Arts Commission gallery this summer. Paintings, photographs, terra cotta and mixed media sculpture all sit on display as part of the show TRADITION! (as uttered by Zero Mostel in “Fiddler on the Roof”).

Curated by Franklin “Buzz” Spector, dean of the College and Graduate School of Art at Washington University, the show brings together four artists whose work explores what it means to have a Jewish attitude about life, identity and community. The exhibit’s title, Spector said, is purposefully ironic because most of the work is not traditional Jewish art.

Spector does not consider himself a religious Jew, so when he set about creating the exhibit, he knew he wanted to focus on a more conceptual theme. “These four artists all exemplify a certain set of acute observations and community dialogue that I recognize from the social experience of being Jewish,” Spector said.

Their work covers subjects that range from depictions of everyday life to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to family heritage and the Holocaust. Frank Roth, the oldest artist in the show and a former professor at Washington University, displays some the least traditional work of the group.

His photographs capture deceivingly simple scenes of people interacting with one another that he crops to make a statement. Taken at locations such as museum lobbies, airports, and the side of a highway, the pictures transform everyday actions into art.

“It’s more the way a painter approaches a landscape rather than a photographer approaches,” Roth said. “A photographer is interested in the subject … and I’m interested in what happens in the spaces between the subjects.”

Lauren Pressler, the youngest artist in the show, delved into her family’s history to tackle thematically serious topics. Pressler’s painting “Between Thunder and Light” draws inspiration from the displacement and loss felt by her grandfather when the Holocaust forced him to flee from Nazi Austria to Shanghai, China. Using passages from his journal, Pressler explores the feeling of loss and the struggle to survive in exile.

Her sculptural work takes a strikingly different approach to Jewish identity. In her piece “Spears Into Pruning Shears,” she creates hybrid physical forms of hawks and doves out of birdcages, bird feathers, bones and other materials.

“There is a pulsating tradition of both war and peace in ancient and modern Judaism,” Pressler said in a press release. “Today, those in favor of a militarized Israeli state can be seen as hawks, and those who advocate passivity can be seen as doves.”

Pressler feels the different approaches in her pieces show diverse ways of looking at Jewish identity.

“The recurring theme in my grandfather’s journal was Zionism. That was his ultimate goal and hope, so that was really the focus of that piece, whereas with the sculptural pieces it’s … about the broader history of the Jewish people,” she said.

Spector chose Pressler for the show in part because, he said, it was important for a young artist to address the issue of the Holocaust. The event looms so large in the history of the Jewish people, and yet he feels it doesn’t define the religion.

“We don’t exist to be persecuted, we exist to reconstitute ourselves within a Jewish model of faith and justice,” he said. “I didn’t want to make it a show about the Holocaust any more than I wanted to make it a show about how to practice the Jewish religion. More it’s about what it is that is Jewish in valuing irony.”

Spector defines irony as “recognizing that you share a common fate with other people.” This idea connects all the artists in the show, allowing each to embrace irony from varying perspectives just as they did their Jewish identities.

Barbara Umbogy’s still life paintings are small scale and depict nonpolitical subject matter, but deal with plenty of irony. Her painting “Vincent and Me” places a pair of women’s sandals on top of Van Gogh’s painting “A Pair of Shoes” from 1887. The joke here is “fabulous,” Spector said.

Umbogy’s other work often depicts more typical Jewish scenes, but Spector wanted her Jewish attitude. Similarly, Sandy Kaplan’s Jewish viewpoint shows through in her terra cotta sculptures. The theatrical figures on her vessels such as on “Dancing ‘Til Dawn” seem to come alive for the viewer.

“These people celebrate to keep emptiness at bay, but the emptiness is inside everything,” Spector said of the sculpted figures. “That’s another aspect of what it is to be Jewish. To deal with the anxiety of survival, and the dialectic self, love and loss at the same time.”

These emotions and their expression through theatricality bring Spector back to the title of his show. “Fiddler On the Roof” is ironic in its own good-natured stereotyping, he explained.

“All identity groups perform their identity in terms of their communal discourse,” Spector said. “So my theatrical references are comparable to the references that might characterize theatrical performances dealing with other forms of ethnicity, race, identification.”

The exhibit, which opened July 13, will be at the RAC, 6128 Delmar Blvd., until Aug. 18.

Abby Abrams Beacon intern

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