Archive for April, 2010


Art review: ‘Reinventing Ritual’

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“Reinventing Ritual: Contemporary Art and Design for Jewish Life” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum works better as a vehicle for explaining Jewish custom than as an art exhibition.

The show’s organizer, the Jewish Museum in New York, collected or commissioned many of the works presented. Each project responds to some facet of Judaic ritual. The show surveys contemporary artists’ ingenuity in responding creatively to aspects of non-artistic tradition.

To that extent, “Reinventing Ritual” enframes a special case of our expectation, or hope, that current art will clarify the impact or significance of widely shared experiences we regard as characteristic of our era.

The era in question here may reach back millennia, and the cultural tradition may be quite strictly defined, but every visitor can sense the pressure on the represented artists and designers to contrive timely responses.

A few examples stand out physically and might easily find a place in other surveys of contemporary art. Matthew McCaslin’s “Being the Light” (2000), a tangle of electrical conduit and switches powering nine porcelain-socketed bulbs, looks like a post-minimalist light sculpture. But McCaslin conceived it as a menorah, an updating of the nine-branched candelabrum used during Hanukkah to commemorate the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, following the second century B.C. Jewish revolt against Seleucid rule.

Jewish rituals concern the order and stability of both the individual’s life and that of a community of belief. In this respect, they have something in common with the secular uses of art. Affinity groups form around art production and institutions. Artworks offer themselves as devices for renewing contact with ideas and feelings that might seldom come to a focus elsewhere in daily life.

“Reinventing Ritual” is organized under four categories: Absorbing, Thinking, Covering and Building, concepts general enough to bridge Jews’ and other visitors’ grasp of the customs involved.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles and Steven Handel silently dominate the entry area of the show with ” ‘I’m Talking to You’: A Scent Garden: Three Different Voices from Nature, Version II” (2009).

This cluster of flasks, beakers and petri dishes filled with seeds, spices, roots and other fragrant matter expands on the ritual known as havdalah: the sniffing of a spice box at the end of the Sabbath, as a foretaste of the sweetness of earthly creation that the worshiper is about to rejoin.

The flasks and olfactory sensations summon associations to other conceptual artworks, from Dieter Roth to Ernesto Neto, while involving every visitor tacitly in a havdalah observance.

Israeli artists Ami Drach and Dov Ganchrow present “+/- Hotplate” (2003), an electrified ceramic plate on which a Hebrew inscription silk-screened in conductive gold serves to warm food placed upon it as part of a dietary ritual.

Several artists included here have made rather labored efforts to criticize Jewish tradition from within.

Helène Aylon constructed an elaborate simulation of a Beit Din, a rabbinic court of the sort before which, under religious law, a Jewish woman must petition for divorce.

Any woman who has been subjected to this patriarchal ordeal might find Aylon’s piece very affecting. Others may find in it the preponderance of didactics over aesthetics from which much installation art suffers.

Tamara Kostianovsky’s “Unearthed” (2007), a flayed beef carcass made of clothing, ventures an analogy – somewhat muddled – between the ethos of kosher butchery and moral reflection on violence among people.

In some ways the most remarkable project on view is Tobaron Waxman’s “Opshernish” (2000), in which the Canadian artist incorporated an ancient rite of passage into his process of transsexual identity change. “Opshernish” names the ceremony in which a 3-year-old boy has his head shaved – except for side locks – signifying first entry into masculinity.

Waxman had this done as an adult, as a video documentary here attests. The shorn locks hang as part of a disquieting installation that intends to question the ritual’s symbolism and notions of how masculinity is attained.

“Reinventing Ritual” inevitably relies heavily on explanatory material, so the immediacy of the art, where immediacy matters, may be available only to visitors already conversant with Jewish tradition.


Art in Review

   Posted by: admin    in Art News Updates

Alexander Gorlizki’s first gallery show in this country is tantalizingly rich with charm, ideas and confusion, and even comes with built-in self-criticism. Mr. Gorlizki, a British artist based in New York, has identified himself as “obsessed with Indian miniature paintings.” As this crowded show of 49 small paintings on paper attests, he plays out this obsession by designing images that are mostly executed according to his instructions at a workshop in Jaipur, India, headed by an artist named Riyaz Uddin. The works may pass back and forth between New York and Jaipur several times over the course of a few years before Mr. Gorlizki deems them complete.

The results are paintings that are profuse with ultra-refined patterns and motifs culled from cultures around the globe: stylized waves from Japanese kimonos, Victorian lace, Malaysian textiles. On top of these may be silhouettes (also patterned) of figures taken from photographs or plainer biomorphic shapes that suggest an admiration for the work of Ken Price. The ceramics of Kathy Butterly also come to mind, especially in “Exercise in Restraint,” where bright blue frog legs are arranged on a cluster of little hooked rugs against a background of pink blossoms on yellow.

“How to Influence People” centers on the silhouettes of two men sitting in armchairs — one wearing a Western business suit, the other a less Western robe — and presents several contrasting, mostly brown, patterns. Instead of heads, large sprigs of coral sprout from the men’s necks — an exotic material frequently found in European cabinets of wonders. The solid coral color and blunt shapes are a saving grace, but the works, like many others with collaged photographs of people, compare well with similar pieces by Christian Holstad.

While seductive, the patterns that Mr. Gorlizki elicits from Mr. Uddin’s artisans start to feel rote-like and oppressive after a while, and the forms that stand out against them tend to remain scattered, rather than providing the relief of a larger, more cohesive composition. His efforts strengthen when abstract shapes resembling splashes of liquid dominate, as in “Blue Notes,” “Look Out” and “Immaculate Spill.”

But it is telling that ultimately the liveliest sight here is a wall covered with scores of studies, found images and partly finished works from Mr. Gorlizki’s studio. A second, stronger show could easily be selected from this array. It suggests that the artist may have learned enough from his Indian collaborators to proceed on his own. He might also think about losing the photographic images and silhouettes.