For the committed or observant Jewish artist, creating art that is meaningful, that stays within the bounds of the second commandment prohibition against graven images and yet avoids kitsch or dogmatism is a daunting challenge. Meeting this challenge head-on with serious humor is “Off Label: Ceremonial Objects Imagined,” an exhibit on view at the JCC in Manhattan that respectfully turns ritual and tradition on its head.
Featuring the works of two Israeli artists, Ken Goldman and Dov Abramson, the exhibition brings a contemporary eye to an ancient religion in ways both obsessive and detached, respectful yet irreverent and in keeping with tradition but forging new paths of observance. This tour de force of an exhibit is curated by artist Tobi Kahn who understands the paradoxical tightrope of creating Jewish art in a contemporary world.
Both artists are American-born Israelis; Goldman made aliyah as a young man and Abramson as a child, and perhaps it is their incomer origins that allow them to remain detached, outsiders looking in. It is, in fact, the combination of insider and outsider that makes their work so interesting – their deep knowledge of Jewish ritual and text combined with a seditious and sometimes cheeky approach to the traditional.
Goldman, who lives on a religious kibbutz, brings a startling, almost heretical approach to ancient ritual objects, while staying within the bounds of traditional Judaism. He invests ritual objects with the obsessed yet detached eye of the Dadaist, spinning them on their head and infusing them with a fresh and contemporary holiness. In “Kissed Torah Cover,” a Torah mantle is decorated with lipstick kisses from women, those same women who traditionally would not be allowed access to the Torah in synagogue. Movingly, Goldman inscribes his son’s army boot with the talismanic words “Vi’tachzireinu Bi’shalom” (Return in Peace), creating on-the-ground protection for going to war. One of the most visually beautiful pieces is the “Tower of Books,” a totemic sculpture which recreates the feel of ancient texts, through the canvas of carved, grainy wood.
Goldman also uses the body as canvas: In “With Without,” a kippah is shaved into a haircut, conjuring a ghost kippah that remains on at all times. In Israel, where many observant young men “lose their kippah” when entering the army, a ghost kippah may well have resonance.
Abramson left the U.S. as a child, and his works, although they similarly challenge traditional tenets, seem more grounded in Israeli culture. In “Zman Nakat,” the acronym for the six sections of the Mishnah, Abramson creates visual cues for each of the tractates, but the style of the works hearken back to Israeli posters of mid-century.
Abramson often makes use of multiples or series, from the five boxes in “Please Put Us Back in One Peace” where he concretizes the dangers enumerated in the Traveler’s Prayer to the serenely colored series on the halachic phases of the day (“Sha’ot Zmaniyot”) to his photographs of reimagined members of a minyan in “Do We Have a Minyan?” I found especial resonance in Abramson’s “Vidduy: The Musical” ‒ a repurposed xylophone inscribed with the words of confession recited during Yom Kippur prayer. With its black letters on a stark white steel background, it is a fitting instrument for reflection and redemption.
“Off Label: Ceremonial Objects Imagined” provides a fresh and sometimes humorous look at the ritual objects we take for granted, making us look again to create meaning in our own times.
"Off Label: Ceremonial Objects Imagined — The Work of Dov Abramson and Ken Goldman," curated by Tobi Kahn, is on view at the Laurie Tisch Gallery at the JCC in Manhattan, 334 Amsterdam Avenue, through July 31st..
Gloria Kestenbaum is a corporate communications consultant and freelance writer.