A woman’s detached hand holds an iron made of wood, atop a wooden ironing board. The man’s fragile shirt that’s being pressed is lined with the kinds of words the woman tells herself to improve her relationship. “I’m willing to try harder.” “Try to remember all the good too.”
The assemblage of wood, paper and found objects, “Ironing It Out” (2011), is featured in “The Sexuality Spectrum,” at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion Museum. The presence of the faceless woman beyond the wooden hands is felt.
Many of the other paintings, photographs and mixed media works in the show depict the struggles of men and women, gay and straight. This is art that reflects on and shouts out about religious attitudes toward sexuality and gender, discrimination, health and family issues, and societal roles.
The link between art and ethics is strong here. In a wall text, Rabbi David Ellenson, president of HUC, writes that the exhibition is fully consonant with efforts of the college and the Reform movement to “secure the basic human rights that are the legitimate birthright of every individual.”
Joshua Lehrer’s series of photographs of young people in a homeless shelter where many identify as transsexual or transgender, are powerfully direct, taken with an antique camera and printed by hand with a blue tonal range. Other lyrical images include the radiant face of Joy Ladin, in a color shot by Joan Roth — Ladin is a transgender poet and professor at Stern College — and a pensive Albert J. Winn in a self-portrait, “Erev Shabbat” (1993), as he was living (and continues to live) with HIV/AIDS.
Some works are by well-known artists, like Judy Chicago’s “Pansy Crucifixion” (1988) and Mark Podwal’s “Lilith” etching (2007). Archie Rand’s “Deborah Diptych” (2012) shows the biblical judge Deborah, the only female judge in Israel, outfitted in army khakis and carrying a large gun. Conceptual artist Helene Aylon is one of several to create art in reaction to the prohibition in Leviticus against male homosexual sex, with her mixed media piece, “I Look into the Passages: Abomination” (2012).
These artists poke at definitions and boundaries, challenging viewers. In an accompanying essay in the catalog, Joel L. Kushner, director of HUC’s Institute for Judaism, Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity, writes that perhaps lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex people and their allies “are in a moment to reclaim Finley Peter Dunne’s aphorism [Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable] and help it live up to its true potential for klal yisrael [the community of Israel].”
David Wander’s “Song of Songs” (2010) is among the most beautiful pieces in the show. His representation of the biblical book in richly illustrated calligraphic panels is sensuous, like the text. He includes ripe pomegranates, lovers’ faces with full red lips and a hand clinging to another’s ankle, images speaking to connection and love.
And a message from graffiti in Jerusalem: Heddy Abramowitz’s 2012 digital color photograph features two figures, faceless, with the words. “Hate Will Not Win” above them.
“The Sexuality Spectrum” is on view at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute or Religion Museum, One W. Fourth St., (212) 824-2298.