by Maria Porges
In the 21st century, we are all authors as well as readers, simultaneously making up and consuming stories. With a brief time-out in the 20th century for abstraction, visual art in the West (and many other places too) has long been closely associated with some form of storytelling, whether about religion, history or the events of daily life.
While not all contemporary artists work with narrative, some were born to tell tales — a fact recognized by an exhibition of newly commissioned works at the Contemporary Jewish Museum titled Jewish Folktales Retold: Artist as Maggid. A Hebrew word meaning itinerant preacher or storyteller, maggid is also used to describe individuals who serve as repositories and transmitters of cultural knowledge, folklore, and social norms and mores, not to mention as angels delivering mystical secrets.
For the most part, group shows organized around a theme or subject are assembled in one of two ways. In one scenario, curators select specific pieces from different artists. Alternatively, with a theme in mind, they may ask a group of artists to create commissioned works. For Artist as Maggid, co-curators Pierre-Francois Galpin and CJM Chief Curator Renny Pritikin took the second approach, but went a step further. Sixteen artists (including two pairs of collaborators) were asked to find their inspiration specifically within the pages of Howard Schwartz’ anthology,
Leaves from the Garden of Eden: One Hundred Classic Jewish Tales (2009). The stories, spanning 1,500 years, come from Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, and include those from both oral and written traditions. There are heavenly journeys, lifelong quests and descents to the underworld; stories with a moral and stories that exhort or encourage — all passed down as a way of not only transmitting culture, but as a means of helping listeners understand outcomes: the consequences of over-valuing wealth and power; the relationship between fate and free will; oppression and resistance; individual versus community; superstition versus piety.
The artists address these themes using sculpture, painting, photography, video and installation. Each work is accompanied by audio narration of the tale that inspired it, listenable on headsets stationed throughout the exhibit. Rather than telling a story, however, many of the works focus on a single character or moment. Stories about travel appear more than once, as do parables about the consequences of choice and the magical nature of trees and forests. Magic, in fact, may be the most prevalent subject, serving as an indicator, perhaps, of how strong a hold this topic has on the modern imagination.
Near the show’s entrance, Mike Rothfeld’s big bluish portal, It is tomorrow we bury here today, invites visitors into another realm. Carved out of gleaming, almost iridescent polyurethane foam, it suggests scenery in some low-budget ‘70s sci-fi movie. That it fails to take us to another time or place hardly matters. Passing through its arch is still deeply enjoyable, and it sets the stage for what follows.
Nearby, bricoleur Elizabeth Higgins O’Connor places two enormous humanoid figures with animal heads that seem as though they might spring into action at any moment. These enchanting monsters are literally improvised out of junk — shredded bedsheets, lace curtains, domestic linens of various sorts, paper, paint, pins, strings and chunks of Styrofoam. Assembled in the gallery, they represent O’Connor’s interpretation of golems: supernatural beings supposedly made of clay or mud and brought to life to protect Jews from their persecutors.
Painters M. Louise Stanley and photographer Dina Goldstein take straightforward approaches to narrative, but with interesting twists. Stanley, in skillfully rendered canvases, often uses history to direct attention to contemporary issues. Here, cartouches containing text and a faintly anachronistic palette evoke antique illustrations, but with a comically sharp, feminist bent. One improbable scenario features a movie casting call for folktale characters. In another painting, She Waits, a spurned bride in a shallow grave reads her way through a massive stack of books while trying to snag an unwitting bridegroom with a single digit thrust up through the ground.
Goldstein’s large-format, black-and white-photographs describe characters and events from ten of the tales. Their scale suggests film stills; modern settings, such as a hospital or hotel, lend a kind of ironic relatability to the stories, even as the surreal nature of what’s taking place — possession by a dybbuk; a bride buried up to her neck — make the scenes, by turns, weirdly funny and disturbing.
Like Rothfeld’s portal, Julia Goodman’s 200 year present invites viewers to enter the sculpture, only in this case it’s an open space between two sets of flat rings of cast paper, graduated in size. Veins of color—the paper was made from repurposed rags, old t-shirts and sheets– suggest mineral deposits, invoking the walls of a cave. In the story Goodman has drawn on, the space is a shack where a young king spends time every day, dressed in the rags of his poor
childhood. He gazes at himself in a mirror, remembering his past while also looking into the future. The piece’s title refers to the idea that, when making political, environmental and economic decisions, those who wield power are advised to consider a century into the past as well as into the future.
In the crepuscular shadows of Andy Diaz Hope and Laurel Roth Hope’s installation, the woulds, delicately beautiful tree sculptures, made of wood, glass and twinkling mirrors, present the forest as more than just a setting for a story; the trees themselves are the characters within the folktales that the Hopes chose (“Tree of Life” and “The Souls of Trees”). Like the best of anime, the world shown here is separated from reality by a
gap of fiction that allows viewers to escape into the Hopes’ imagination with relative ease, accepting the idea of souls flying, bird-like, from one tree to another, and able, as co-curator Pierre-Francois Galpin describes in his essay, to “see between spaces, times and spirits.”
A single piece located outside the gallery, Michael Arcega’s The Enchanted, serves both as the show’s prologue and epilogue and, you could say, its spiritual/emotional anchor. A long table, thrust improbably through the low wall surrounding the top of the stairs, is seen first from below, legs dangling, as one ascends. Its top and contents are only visible once the second floor has been reached, and even then, the abstract forms of the objects are still far away, one of them mysteriously lit from within. In the story Arcega chose, a shipwrecked rabbi is forced to make a fateful choice — between performing a religious ritual (blowing a shofar) or sating his hunger (from a horn of plenty). His choice results in catastrophic consequences that are revealed to him only after it’s too late. All the intensity of Arcega’s work focuses on that moment—poetically, rather than literally conveyed.
At their best, all the pieces in this masterfully conceived and executed show remind us of why folk tales are not only enjoyable and enchanting, but a crucial part of how we know who we are. Though the stories the artists drew upon may come to us from long ago and far away, much about them remains relevant for us, particularly in psychically trying times like these. It’s deeply
comforting to picture a maggid, telling these stories in a farmhouse kitchen, drawing listeners closer to a deeper understanding of spirituality with humor, terror, pathos and beauty. As artist Dina Goldstein has put it, “the dark elements and obstacles leading up to the conclusion often reveal much about human nature and psychology, making the tales much more practical and realistic, a typically Jewish tradition.”
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“Jewish Folktales Retold: Artist as Maggid” @ Contemporary Jewish Museum through January 28, 2017. A digital catalogue is available online, including four essays, pictures of the exhibition and audio files and transcripts of the folk tales. The exhibition also includes works by: Vera Iliatova, David Kasprzak, Mads Lynnerup, Tracey Snelling, Chris Sollars, Inez Storer and Young Suh and Katie Peterson.
About the Author:
Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives and works in Oakland. For over two decades, her critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Craft, Glass, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications. The author of more than 100 exhibition catalog essays, she presently serves as an associate professor at California College of the Arts.