In Hanan Harchol’s art, there’s no disconnect between visual imagery and Jewish thought. His new exhibition of paintings and animation is alive with conversation — about values, teachings, choices, holiness and life’s adventures.
The conversations take place in cars, park benches and on the subway; even the small talk leads to large ideas, whether love or forgiveness or gratitude. In Israeli-accented English and with perfect timing, his father, the nuclear physicist Micha Harchol (in Hanan’s voice) advises his son not to chase another person’s dream (“Looking in Other People’s Windows” or Envy) and not to let someone live in your head rent-free, that is, not to let someone’s past actions take up valuable room (“Landlord” or Forgiveness).
In an interview, Harchol, a multimedia artist, explains that “the humor and cartooning is a way to get a lot deeper into the subject. You can reach people subconsciously — people let their guard down and the next thing you know, you’ve touched their soul.”
“Hanan Harchol: Jewish Food For Thought” at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion Museum, is Harchol’s first solo exhibition. Included are large black-and-white paintings, drawings, vertical tapestries of stills from his animations arranged in comic strips, panels of teachings that inspire the art and a continuously playing video of the animations.
Laura Kruger, curator of the HUC Museum, who organized the show, and has included Harchol’s work in two previous shows, speaks of the power of his drawing, “his very identifiable line.” She writes in the exhibition catalog, “Distraction is banished by the deliberate absence of color and extraneous detail, focusing the viewer’s attention on the verbal exchanges.”
In person, Harchol, 43, is exuberant, punctuating his conversation (never short) with questions and quotes from Maimonides, Heschel and Rabbi Nachman. “The learning,” he says, “infuses me with energy and purpose.” In his art and life, his style is direct, deceptively simple, highly original, funny, loving and bold. He’s filled with gratitude (and would be happy if his many teachers and supporters were listed here.)
Harchol’s mother sometimes appears in the animations, too. In an essay, scholar and psychotherapist Tali Kahana, one of his teachers, points out that these various voices are part of Harchol’s inner being, that the viewer becomes a partner to his internal dialogue.
Just a few years ago, Harchol wouldn’t — and couldn’t — have been having these conversations.
Born in Israel, Harchol moved with his family from a kibbutz to New Jersey when he was 2. While his father could quote the Bible with ease, he was anti-religious. Their home was filled with more talk than reading — a lot of arguing, engagement, verbal problem solving. His parents divorced when he was 11, and his mother began taking him and his sister to services on Yom Kippur and to Passover seders.
Harchol earned an MFA in fine arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He found his voice as a “psychological narrative painter,” telling stories with layers of meaning, exploring the human condition. He also learned film and animation, and was advised by a teacher to continue unraveling his family’s story.
At the same time, he is a classical guitarist. When he was 16, he performed on WQXR, New York’s leading classical station. For 15 years, he supported his art by playing four times a week at venues including Tavern on the Green and the Rainbow Room. Last year he released his ninth CD, “Latin Ballads,” and to date, he has sold more than 50,000 CDs.
In 2009, Harchol, a high school art teacher, joined a program spearheaded by Rabbi Leon Morris to create, along with 10 other contemporary video artists, a film about the Passover Hagaddah. The artists also studied text together and for the first time, at age 39, Harchol was reading the Torah seriously.
As Rabbi Morris comments, Harchol, in studying the texts, like “so many others before him, found there a language that spoke to his soul and could be expressed through his art.”
His interest in Jewish wisdom awakened, Harchol began to study Talmud. In those pages, in the voices of the rabbis recorded in the text, he found an echo of the voices of his parents — the arguing, the back-and-forth, the turning of ideas inside out.
Filled with questions and an immense curiosity, he sought out teachers. He was introduced to Ruth Calderon, now a member of Knesset, and through her met the Israeli couple Maoz and Tali Kahana, when Maoz was a Tikvah Fellow at NYU; they became his main teachers, and he also found others (he thanks many rabbis and others in the exhibition catalogue).
After receiving a three-year grant from the Covenant Foundation, Harchol took time off of teaching to begin “Jewish Food For Thought: The Animated Series,” with nine animations (jewishfoodforthought.com), the last two to premiere at the opening of the exhibition. Not to give anything away, but the final piece, “Faith,” is breathtaking.
During the years that Harchol has worked on the project, his son Benjamin, now almost 3, was born, and his father passed away in January 2012. He began attending synagogue to say Kaddish, and when he received an aliyah on the occasion of the first yahrtzeit, he realized that the parsha, or portion of the Torah, was Bo, the very first parsha he had studied, with Rabbi Morris. “Full circle,” he says.
At home, he saw his father as king of the household, and in some of the paintings, his father is crowned. “In real life,” the artist says, “my father was more scary and overwhelming than funny.” The fear is evident in some of his early paintings.
“I’m not inventing the way he sounded,” he says. “I’m inventing what he said.”
In the paintings and animations, Harchol’s father is often dressed in striped pajamas. At first glance, it might look like Holocaust imagery, but Harchol explains that his father wore flannel pajamas around the house, and they happened to be thick-striped. One of the times that he’d always see his father was Saturday mornings, when he would cook eggs and French fries, still in his black-and-white pajamas.
“I always see him as a guy wearing black striped pajamas,” he says, adding that while he wasn’t intending the Holocaust linkage, he does see the imagery as making his father, on a certain level, very human. After having drawn his father that way, he finds the look sobering, as during the Shoah people from every status in society were all wearing striped pajamas.
Without being didactic, Harchol is making Jewish wisdom widely accessible. The animations have been featured extensively on the website of Krista Tippett’s “On Being,” as well as haredi websites.
Harchol continues to teach at the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan and hopes to raise $3 million for his next project, an animated autobiographical feature film in the style of the French animated film “Persepolis,” based on a graphic novel of the same title.
“Unlike my animations, that captivate people for eight minutes, here I would have them in the room for an hour and a half,” he says. He might look at why organized sports — with its rules, rituals and leadership — captivate so many people and religion does not. He adds, “I would hope that people would leave the theater motivated, with a sense of optimism, committed to change something in their life, or relationships, or community.”
“Hanan Harchol: Jewish Food For Thought” is on view at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion Museum, through June 27, 2014. One W. Fourth St. (between Broadway and Mercer). huc.edu/museums/ny. Free admission (photo ID necessary).
The opening on Oct. 3 is open to the public, 5:30 to 7:30, and features a panel discussion moderated by Rabbi Leon Morris with Matthew Baigell, Tali Kahana and Joe Septimus, on “Making Jewish Wisdom Accessible Through Art,” at 6:15 p.m., that includes the world premiere of “Faith.” Please RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org or (212) 824-2298.