Yishai Jusidman’s color palette is limited to materials connected to the Nazi gas chambers: Prussian Blue, a pigment that appeared on the chamber walls as a by-product of the Zyklon B Gas; a silicon dioxide power used for pellets that delivered the gas to the sealed chambers; and flesh-tone colored paints, referring to the murdered millions.
In his exhibit, “Prussian Blue: Memory after Representation,” at the Americas Society, Jusidman tackles the ongoing issue of describing the indescribable ‒ the Shoah ‒ through art. In his series of paintings based on photographs of the Nazi gas chambers, Jusidman creates an anthology of ominously serene and perversely beautiful still lifes. How to reconcile the beauty and artfulness of the paintings with the horror of their subject matter is a question that any viewer must wrestle with.
As we walked through the gallery together, Jusidman made clear that his paintings are, foremost, about art. “We cannot replicate the holocaust through art. The challenge is how to make the interest of art and the interest of remembering come together.” There are no people in the paintings, no bodies, no piles of shoes or eyeglasses, just the bare space and architecture of the chambers. “Depicting suffering can only banalize it or make it into caricature,“ he added.
In Jusidman’s work there is a constant play between abstraction and reality. Doors and walls are recurring elements, accurate representations of the murderous structures and piteous metaphors of genocide. One painting in particular, “Birkenau,” hovers in that undefined space between abstraction and representation: At first glance, a construct of light and dark, it is, in fact, meticulously based on one of four photographs taken in secret by Jewish Sonderkommandos (death camp prisoners who were forced to dispose of gas chamber victims) while the gas chambers were in use. Eventually, the viewer can discern trees and sky, presumably the last image the victims saw before they entered the chambers.
Yishai Jusidman was born in 1963 in Mexico, where he says, “a strong painterly tradition prevailed.” His grandparents left the Ukraine in the 1920s but many of his extended family were killed during the Shoah. In the end, Jusidman says, “It’s about the history of my family.” For Jews, the paintings are about the history of all our families.
“Prussian Blue: Memory after Representation,” on view through March 23, 2013 at the Americas Society, 680 Park Avenue at 68th Street. http://www.as-coa.org/events/exhibition-tour-yishai-jusidman
Gloria Kestenbaum is a corporate communications consultant and freelance writer.