We are emotionally and psychically shaped by the people with whom we are raised, whether we are biologically connected or not. Their culture becomes our culture, and their histories live within us. So the question arises, how do four contemporary Jewish artists reflect on the Holocaust without their work becoming reductive?
“Looking at After,” an exhibit at the Epsten Gallery at Village Shalom, has some answers.
Writer, co-curator and contributing artist Tanya Hartman writes in the brochure, “Looking at After (is) a phrase that embodies, for me, how as Jews, we carry shards of the past into our present, fragments that allow us to be better than we thought we could be and shards that make us partial.” The show, she adds, is “looking at the legacy of genocide within both the banality and the luxury of the daily.”
In “What Was Beautiful” (1999-2013), Hartman wrote 365 poems and snippets of prose, which she typed and pieced together on small rectangles of canvas. She used white-out liquid, textiles and embroidery on each tiny canvas. Each is a daily reflection, some short and pithy, and some long and devotional.
Accompanying the piece are two computer stations where the viewer can click an individual panel and hear Hartman recite the prose. She reads like a poet, her voice modulated and soothing. Each poem starts with the same question: “What was beautiful today?” The diminutive canvases are messy and slightly chaotic, and the embroidery threads can be loose with fraying ends, encapsulating what is to be cherished and tenderly cared for about each and every day that we are granted.
Cima Katz’s “From a Genizah” (2010-2014, in process) is the soul sister to Hartman’s devotional. The brochure notes, “A Genizah is a sacred storeroom within a Jewish synagogue or cemetery that is a repository for Hebrew documents containing the name of G_d and awaiting proper burial.” The sacred documents can be interspersed with personal notes. Katz’s large installation has four mixed-media collages that look like open books and contain images of people, birds, animals, script and Hebrew text.
The “books” are surrounded by tiny gold hand sculptures mounted on the walls, which are accompanied by various objects including a lady’s hankie, gloves and more. These talismans are infused with the memory of the people who might have owned them.
If Hartman’s work is a devotion to daily living, Katz’s is an homage to her past — old family photographs mix with contemporary imagery — and the people with whom she has shared her life. In one somber image of a woman, Katz has sewn her mouth closed with red cross-stitch.
Misha Kligman, who lived in Russia until he was a teenager, offers dark, somber paintings whose matte surfaces somehow enhance the tense danger inherent in the images themselves. They are predominantly ambiguous, wooded scenes. In one, a figure stands with his back to us, seemingly peering into the woods. Is he waiting, watching, on guard? Kligman’s dark woods, in the context of this exhibition, become menacing, filled with the tension of what is hidden and who might be watched. Similarly, Benjamin Rosenthal’s four channel video/media installation, “0x0000007B_Switch_Buffering_Standby_Mode” (2014) capitalizes on the anxiety implicit in waiting and surveillance. His work is based on a 1974 work by Beryl Korot titled “Dachau 1974,” in which she videotaped her visit to Dachau.
Rosenthal’s two monitors of domestic interiors reveal a bedroom and a den, both of which feel as if they have been abruptly abandoned. The bed is a mess, and in the den, a coffee cup sits on the desk in front of the pushed-back chair.
Within the exhibition’s context we see the scenes as ones from which someone has fled or been forced to quit. The other two monitors are manipulated screen shots from the popular video game “Sims,” in which a player creates and manipulates virtual people in virtual homes. Here two “Sims” figures exist in suburban modernist home environments, but they do nothing and appear frustrated with their stasis. Rosenthal queries the systems of surveillance and authentic experience that we encounter in our daily intersection with technology. He notes, “Moving between tangible space, visible time, and invisible space, I find myself questioning the authenticity of our physical experience in an age when the boundaries between reality and the virtual become indistinguishable.”
Four paintings by Anna Ilona Gondos (1910-85), who, with her husband and child, survived Bergen-Belson concentration camp, are displayed in the gallery in conjunction with “Looking at After” and serve as an anchor. Her paintings of Maryland’s Rock Creek Park are, like Kligman’s, dense, yet Gondos’ paintings are full of light.
She has metaphorically emerged from the woods to look back at it in wonder, while Kligman’s woods are brutal and desolate, speaking to our fear. The paintings speak to one another across the gallery’s expanse and across time and place.
“Looking at After: Four Contemporary Artists Reflect on Legacy” and “A Creative Spark: The Art of Anna Ilona Gondos” continue at the Epsten Gallery at Village Shalom, 5500 W. 123rd St., Overland Park, through May 18. Hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Closed Monday. For more information, call 913-266-8413.