Jew York: Artist’s Identity Beyond The Mattzoh Ball Soup

When I first got the announcement for a summer group show titled “Jew York”- I was aghast! The yellow six sided star beneath the title fuelled further alarm.  What could these two galleries – collaborating under this one umbrella, possibly mean by this? The press release attached provided no clarification. It read “We live in a time of survey exhaustion. There’s no ethnic group that hasn’t been neatly encapsulated, no far flung city that hasn’t been given a biennial to host. There’s nobody left to survey, and nowhere left to do it. So we figured our only option was to do a show of Jews, and do it in New York. UNTITLED and Zach Feuer invite you to join them as part of their summer long foray into the contemporary work of America’s Jews in their natural habitat the Lower East Side and Chelsea and help make all of our  mothers kvell.Shalom.”
Okay! But excuse me? It wasn’t until I read the impressive list of over sixty artists that my breath slowed back down. Then of course I went into the mode of “I didn’t know Hannah Wilke and Eva Hesse were Jewish?” I had no idea that Philip Guston, Peter Halley, Leon Golub, Sol Lewitt and Jonas Wood were Jewish. Then there were the artists with the blatantly Jewish names, Roy Lichtenstein, Rachel Feinstein, Alex Katz- and so forth- that I never thought of as Jewish- but DUH!

So while I felt better, or somewhat assured this wouldn’t be mocking, especially since both of the galleries are owned by ‘Jews’ I still did not better understand the two show’s curatorial intention. Could this list of very varied artists possibly make a singular statement? Is there a religious theme? My curiosity was piqued and unlike any of the other summer sleepy group show announcements that came into my inbox, I felt I had to go see ‘Jew York’.

I went to the one in Chelsea first- at Zach Feuer Gallery on W.22nd St. As you enter, above the reception desk and visible from the street is Cary Leibowitz‘s piece “Hi Jewboy Hi” welcoming (?) visitors. When I asked about this piece I learned that it is from the artist’s personal collection and harks back to taunts he suffered as a child. Okay got it! Across from the reception desk, still in the foyer area is a rack of men’s suits. Was Joseph Beuys Jewish? No- It is a rack of men’s suits ($300-$600) available for purchase and tailoring- by Samy the little old Jewish tailor, who’s shop is located on Orchard Street, next to UNTITLED ‘s gallery. The artist label identifies the artist as Joel Mesler (co-owner of UNTITLED) and reads as ‘#Samy2013”. Mesler knows and likes his neighbor Samy and thought the contextual mash up of moving Samy’s 72 year old men’s suit store from the lower east side’s historically ethnic ‘shmatah retail’ location, to the swank, sterilised Chelsea setting was “an experiential piece”. The good news is- Samy’s been doing a brisk business! Location, Location, Location. Collectors and art enthusiasts can try on, buy and have fittings right on the spot!  One collector actually purchased 300 suits- one for all of his company’s employees. All proceeds go to Samy.

Jew York: Artist's Identity Beyond The Mattzoh Ball Soup

Now for the art works in the gallery! It’s impossible to summarise the array of standalone works. Each piece is unique to it’s artists oeuvre. The abstract expressions of Joanne Greenbaum’s colorful, drippy yet solid “Untitled” painting or Roy Lichtenstein’s silkscreen “Landscape” of a happy sunrise are individualised and do not speak to a Jewish ethos. What do these artist all share beyond mattzoh ball soup on the high holy days? Does the absence of commonality allude to the lack of a binding piety or purpose within the Jewish upbringing?I doubt without the show’s title, I would have realised that all the artists in the show were Jewish. I may have detected a faint whiff of Jewish sensibility but then again that happens all the time in Jew York. One of a few obvious Jewish referential works is by Aura Rosenberg, who is known for  surreal photos of dreamy children wearing artist inspired makeup. In this show she has a black and white vintage looking photograph of her young daughter Carmen wearing shtetal attire with a sewn star on her tattered coat. The look on Carman’s face is scared.  I find this recreation curious as neither Rosenberg herself or her daughter must have known that time first hand. Is the history in their bones or DNA?
Justin Leiberman has a smashing painting “The Disquieting Duck” 2013 which he made expressly for this show. His intellectual wit comes in his recreation of a Marc Chagall ionic image with Leiberman’s gooey silly impasto scribbles of a duck painted over the Chagall. As further conceptual smarts he credits the artist name as Juston Guston (Leiberman name is not on the wall label) and at the bottom of the label it reads courtesy of the estate of Juston Guston. Clearly it is a play on his Jewish name of Leiberman in favor of a more ethnically opaque name. He must have been reacting as did I to the fact that Philip Guston was Jewish. And as I later learned was born Philip Goldstein!
One piece done by Jamie Sneider called “The Year of the Jewish Woman,” is a pin-up calendar from 2009 which features barely clad Sneider in come hither poses accompanied by traditional Jewish objects such as a dreidel and food such as challah. The calendar was originally created for her application to graduate school. There is a rack available of her calendars for purchase- $30 each.

Jew York: Artist's Identity Beyond The Mattzoh Ball Soup
On to Untitled gallery, down town. Again, the Jewish theme is couched (literally) in subtle suggestion. In the center of the gallery is a large leather well worn couch on a white pedestal. The artist is Jennifer Rubell and the title is “My Shrink‘s Couch”. Apparently it is her shrink’s old office couch, and apparently psychoanalysis is considered a Jewish pursuit. The Diane Arbus gelatine silver prints “A Family One Evening in a Nudist Camp”, and “Retired Man and His Wife at Home in a Nudist Camp One Morning, NJ” hanging on the wall behind the couch lend the install an authentic must be a psychoanalytic doctor’s office feel.
Along the gallery’s other walls are again, a varied array of works. There is a tall vertical Alex Katz painting of “Elizabeth” in profile, smiling benignly, beside Erica Baum’s photo of Barbara Streisand. The non descript “Elizabeth” in Katz’s typically washed out style, cleverly accentuates Barbara Streisand’s ethnicity.  A few works down is an original Marc Chagall. It happens to be a beautiful goache,oil,and charcoal on paper done in 1979. Very moody and spiritual, but the title is “Le Peintere au Chavalet a St Paul”. St Paul? Wait a moment, he’s the indefatigable Apostle of the Gentiles, who converted from Judaism on the road to Damascus !I guess it doesn’t matter. Bottom line it’s a stunning visual, and the artist is Jewish. That just about sums up the curatorial effort of these two shows!

Words/ Photos: Lizanne Merrill

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