History can be a dusty and deadly affair. The secret to making art about history is to be both loyal to your subject and improvisational in its expression.
The artists Cynthia Beth Rubin and Yona Verwer tackle the Jewish American immigration experience of the Lower East Side in a series of banners and augmented digital prints in their show on Governor’s Island, “ARt, ARchitecture and AR: Jewish Art & Augmented Reality,” presented by Art Kibbutz. They include depictions of local synagogues, buildings and symbols posing a world of memory, loss and religious persecution. However, the images also reflect a particularly American optimism rooted in that experience still fondly remembered today.
The term “augmented reality” refers to a computer imaging technology embedded within selected prints. This may be accessed by using an electronic reader provided in the gallery. Digital imagery of sea life, snippets of oratory performed by Lower East Side historian Elissa Sampson, and music composed by Bob Gluck add to a greater understanding of the exhibition.
The artists began by researching the histories of the synagogues, art works and adjacent neighborhood residences for visual inspiration. They consulted medieval manuscripts with illustrations and texts, many in Hebrew. They initially scanned the imagery and applied digital ink and acrylic paint in alternating layers. The compositions were then rescanned into their final form. The entire activity is a complex one and by fusing collaborative workshop practices, historical graphics and ideas of contemporary abstraction, each work evolves into a rich multi-faceted visual experience.
The banners explore traditional synagogue mural iconography, which tie Zodiac symbols to the corresponding months of the Jewish Calendar. In “Shvat and Stanton St. Shul (Aquarius, February),” “Cheshvan, Stanton Street Shul (Scorpio, November)” and “Sivan and the Stanton Street Shul (Gemini, June),” all 2015, the artists employ non-human representations. These parallel traditional Jewish art practices, where animals, fish, birds and trees were often used as primary subject matter due to the dictates of the Second Commandment. These non-human characters carry allegorical and narrative associations, such as the turtle doves of Noah’s Ark (Sivan), or fish and turtles depicted as souls in transition (Cheshvan), or trees portrayed as stewards of the environment (Shvat) as related to Tu Bishvat, the Jewish variant of Arbor day.
The exhibition poses a world not easily forgotten; one of courage and belief, but also of imagination. The works employ symbols of the past, but also announce their own origins via the hyper-modernity of computer technology. By their very nature they seem to declare that identity itself, like Jewish American identity, must be considered as an act of creative vision. The burning crucible of past, present and future so apparent in Jewish experience is expertly mirrored by the pictorial tensions and unities made manifest here. Looking at the past through a modern lens poses the question, “What is the Jewish American experience, today?” and the response in this creative venue merits our highest intellectual, historical and aesthetic considerations.
“ARt, ARchitecture and AR: Jewish Art & Augmented Reality” is next on view on Sunday, September 18th, 11 am to 6 pm, Nolan Park, 6B, Governors Island, in the Art Kibbutz Gallery.
Joel Silverstein is an artist, critic, curator and teacher. He has exhibited at Pratt Institute, Columbia/Barnard, the Jerusalem Biennial, 2015 and has written over 60 articles and exhibition catalogs. He is a founding member of the Jewish Art Salon and has currently curated “JOMIX; Jewish Comics-Art & Derivation” at the Sid Jacobson JCC Greenvale New York, September 25th through December 4th.