Parsing The Unseen
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Parsing The Unseen

Born in the United States, artist and teacher Leah Raab has twice gone on aliyah for extended periods, and twice returned to the U.S. Nevertheless, life in Israel, its landscape, religion and history, both past and present, remains a recurring theme in her work.

In “Beyond the Surface,” her solo show now at the Creative Soul Gallery in Brooklyn, a surprising bastion of Jewish art amid the pizza stores and modest clothing shops of chassidic Crown Heights, the varied paintings reflect the personal and evolving themes that have preoccupied her. As Raab says, her works “appear tranquil on the surface” but are “threatened by a looming, ominous foreboding that may erupt in violence at any moment… where a sinister reality lies beneath the seemingly innocuous.”

That contradiction between what is seen and what is hidden, what is obvious and what is not, appeals to Raab and makes her work worth parsing. In her Yad Vashem Series, she depicts the beautiful memorial to death and destruction from multiple angles and reflects on the dichotomy between the elegant building and its purpose. In some of the paintings, railway tracks or smokestacks jarringly appear, disjunctive elements on the otherwise serene landscape.

Likewise, in her Lung Series, Raab looks for what’s fomenting and concealed underneath. She coped with her mother’s deteriorating health by focusing quite literally on the body’s internal, visceral workings, exposing it from inside out, with painted lungs the thematic icon, self-described “inner landscapes” that come to symbolize the spiritual rather than the physical.

After a chance visit to the zoo, the lungs eventually evolved into turtle shells, Raab’s metaphor for her own embodiment of the Wandering Jew, hauling her possessions on her back, moving between countries, yet strong and enduring, carrying family and religious values along with her. Eventually, the painted turtles morphed even further, losing their shells, transformed into human figures in a protoplasm of their own making. The icons of death have turned into unencumbered symbols of hope and endurance.

Her most recent works, expressionist in nature, reflect the conflict ever present in Israel but especially fearsome in recent months. The “Playground” paintings portray children playing or hiding –- the brightly colored oils at first mask the frightening subject matter –- in the playground’s cement pipes, makeshift shelters, while unspecified hazard threatens from without. In another group, children ride a monster slide, whose gawping mouth spews bodies, willy-nilly, a nightmare parading as entertainment. Danger lies in wait in the most benign venues.

Yet, in her writings and in her outlook, Raab remains a religious optimist, hopeful about the “power of prayer…generating a higher, transcendental realm beyond the surface…where people unite and help one another.”

“Beyond the Surface,” paintings by Leah Raab are on view at the Creative Soul Gallery, 386 Kingston Avenue, Brooklyn through January 4th, 2015.

Gloria Kestenbaum is corporate communications consultant and freelance writer.

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