Linda Lighton sculpture
by Elisabeth Kirsch, special to the Kansas City Star, Aug. 20, 2011.
"Between Thee & Me: Artists Respond to the Judaica Collection of Michael Klein", Epsten Gallery at Village Shalom, 5500 W. 123rd St., Overland Park, KS.

Objects of Faith inspire objects of art in Epsten Gallery exhibit

In art parlance, a "super-object" is a work that refuses to be pigeonholed within the traditional framework of art criticism.

It is a work brimming with diverse layers of meaning, both intrinsically and in the way it relates to the world of visual art.

A room full of such objects is now installed in "Between Thee & Me: Artists Respond to the Judaica Collection of Michael Klein" at the Epsten Gallery.

In this exhibit, all the artworks mix — in varying degrees — the personal, the spiritual and the religious with aesthetics. As such, each piece exists as a puzzle to be unlocked.

A yad, or Torah pointer, inspired three artists to create wildly different works: a hand-carved wooden wall work by Mark Cowardin, who used his own hand as a model; a mixed-media print, "Torah," by Hugh Merrill, who portrays the yad as a monumental object of power; and "All This Was Made by My Hand" by Robert Quackenbush, who forged a steel sculpture with letters of the Jewish alphabet, a piece that's a genuine stylistic departure for this artist.

A double-headed eagle by an unknown, itinerant Jewish artist inspired both the highly personalized, anguished text piece "So Tell Me ..." by Gerry Trilling and a charming painting of a traditional living room by Lee Piechocki.

Bringing each piece to life

"Between Thee & Me" is a result of a foray made several months ago by 15 artists to the home of Michael Klein, an art collector and past president of the Kansas City Jewish Museum, which sponsors the Epsten Gallery. Klein owns almost 500 works of Judaica, which he has collected for more than 35 years.

Marcus Cain, curator of the Epsten Gallery, suggested an invitational exhibit in which artists of different ages, backgrounds, religions and nationalities were instructed to "go into a religious artifact collection and see if something speaks to you."

There were no restrictions on any object that was chosen or what one did with it.

It could have proven to be, in Cain's words, "a dangerous enterprise." He was not made privy to what would be installed in the gallery, a nerve-racking situation for any curator. Equally touchy was the subject matter. Until recently, exhibitions of religious material have been anathema to most art institutions, for various political reasons. But the wrenching events of 9/11 ripped open the possibilities for increased discourse in matters of religion and spirituality, with the art world no exception. Still, such exhibits are often controversial.

When the artists arrived at Michael Klein's house, the collector noted "what was interesting to me was how the artists would literally come across an object and that was it. They each found a piece they wanted to do something with.

"Not all the artists were Jewish. Some had never seen these kinds of objects before. ... To my surprise, most of the artists were drawn to smaller, less-expensive items. For me, as a collector, what was important was that these works contributed inspiration, and the artists would bring each piece alive."

Inspiration large and small

Some artists took an object they responded to and absorbed it, stylistically, into the typical context of their oeuvre. Video artist Barry Anderson was inspired by a small silver spice box from 1780, an item that would have been used in ritual events to stimulate the senses. In "Towerpsych," he converted its meaning into a 2-minute loop of psychedelic, abstract swarms of color and movement.

Jason Pollen incorporated a digital print of Michael Klein's face using the design from a Passover Seder plate as the framing mechanism in his textile, "Portrait of Michael," a piece that relates to his most recent body of work (just exhibited at the Epsten Gallery) that included painted and stitched portraits.

A 19th century metal platter of a scene from the Garden of Eden, with its depiction of fantastical animals, prompted Julia Steinberg to fabricate an immensely appealing mixed-media collage combining whimsy and culture.

Burton Freeman took a related subject, the seven days of creation, depicted in an ornate design on the cover of a Jewish Bible, and created seven exquisite silkscreen prints on mirrored Plexiglas, all hanging from a free-standing mount.

Freeman is not Jewish, but each print includes text in Hebrew and English, and the center panel, representing the Sabbath, is red, the color that represents the most sacred day of the week in Judaism.

Looking at a 200-year-old bronze synagogue chandelier from Poland, Linda Lighton and Asheer Akram collaborated on "Everlasting Light," a successful fusion of one of Lighton's fragile porcelain LED lightworks surrounded by Akram's etched fabricated steel frame. The contrast of the delicate white porcelain with the cold, hard steel is unexpected and mesmerizing.

Misha Kligman and Tanya Hartman also painstakingly researched their subject matter, subsequently producing art of real poignancy.

Kligman's oil and wax painting is of a Kiddush cup, a vessel that can be any kind of container, used when reciting Kiddush before the meal on the eve of Shabbat and Jewish holidays. His depiction is that of a plain cup with a beautiful patina, centered alone in the middle of the painting, with a radiating aureole surrounding it. In his artist's statement, he observes that "the object itself is an empty shell, activated only through faith."

As her inspiration, Tanya Hartman began with a charming Jewish alphabet from 1920s Poland, which included animal pictures used to teach young children the sounds of Hebrew letters. Contemplating it, she said she realized "the piece is overlaid with sorrow, because the children who looked at and learned from it probably experienced the Holocaust." Hartman's "An Alphabet for a Holy Land" looks like a lovely textile from a distance. But up dose, along with the cow bones and human hair on paper, one sees tiny words such as "fear," "conflict," "fanatic" and "peace" sewn throughout the work.

A different result

Ritchie Kaye and Susan White both wrestled with their subject matter, ending up with art that was much different from where they started.

Kaye was drawn to a fragile Persian amulet c. 1880 that was hand-lettered and painted with ink on paper, an object that could be carried by hand. Contemplating that, Kaye said she wondered "what matters so much that it wins out over food, clothing, shelter, the necessary, a life-sustaining object?"

In the end, Kaye decided, we take only our memories with us. So she created clear plastic boxes with ghost-like images of people, places and text, which can be taken apart and re-assembled.

Like a number of artists in this exhibit, Kaye stretched when confronting her topic, and "Memento" is some of her best work.

"Whip, a Meditation on Body and Soul" is Susan White's video, a response to a self-flagellation whip from Turkmenistan. The whip, she decided, "fed into the thoughts that I already held about — and held against — formal religion."

White's initial video incorporated "a syncopated whip/heartbeat sound," which she ultimately cut out. The final product is a meditative, soothing, gentle flowing abstract stream of colors and shapes.

"As so often in the process of art making," she states, "the piece that I thought I was making disappeared and something much truer came to life."


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