Breaking Away, Looking Back
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Breaking Away, Looking Back

Sandee is the arts and culture editor at the Jewish Week.

Sara Erenthal likes to think of her one-woman gallery show as a brief memoir. From the moment that visitors walk through the door of the Soapbox Gallery in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights, they enter her life, first via her childhood bedroom.

A small bed covered with flowery sheets is fit between two nightstands, one with a worn copy of tehilim, or psalms, on top and an old sock hanging out of a drawer and the other with an open drawer full of color photographs of the artist as a young girl. On a nearby wall, an outfit worn by an ultra-orthodox girl hangs on a nail, near a portrait of the bearded father.

The still life of a bedroom, and the other installations, sculpture and video work in the show – curated by Marine Cornuet and titled “BE!” – look back to a world Erenthal left behind. Born in Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, Israel, she was part of the Neturei Karta sect — ardent, ultra-orthodox, anti-Zionists. She grew up in Israel and New York and ran away at age 17 rather than face an arranged marriage. In a very unusual step, she joined the Israeli army.

Another corner of the gallery features a tableaux of Jewish books, a lace covering and a candelabra, with one arm broken. Her portraits of the daughter, father, mother, brother are made of found materials, like burlap, lace and tzitzit; even the frames, that are part of the portraits, were found. The figures’ mouths are made of staples, suggesting very limited self-expression. The young girl has braids, as Erenthal did as a child, and the tights are made of burlap. Erenthal recalls having to wear tights that were so heavy and uncomfortable that they felt “bulletproof.”

A large scale sculpture that stands out as the centerpiece of the show, “Eidele Meidele,” depicts a girl’s face, eyes turned down, made of papier-mache. Many yards and yards of coarse twine are fashioned into long thick braids, which are secured to the floor.

A video at the back most dramatically illustrates Erenthal’s themes of freedom and breaking away. Standing naked, she is bound tightly in long black tefillin straps. Her face is full of anguish and is difficult to watch, as she struggles.

Erenthal signs her work with her first name in Sanskrit, an influence of her time traveling in India. In conversation at the gallery, she says that doing this show has been healing. Her work is bold, thoughtful, highly emotional and creative. Once drawn so intimately into her world, the viewer wonders where the artist will next turn her attention and talent.

“BE!” is on view at the Soapbox Gallery, 636 Dean Street, Brooklyn, through September 13, 2014, Thursday – Friday 5-7 pm, Saturday 2-8 pm.

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