1Golem Maker
The Golem Maker by Joel Silverstein

2Plagued Man
The Plagued Man by Joel Silverstein

3Bezalel
Bezalel by Joel Silverstein

Abrazo Interno Gallery, The Clemente Center
Monday – Sunday; 3:30 – 7pm
107 Suffolk Street
NY, NY, 10002
Faces of Transformation: New Works by Joel Silverstein & Tine Kindermann
Exhibition Closes August 30, 2017

Downtown has been livened up considerably by this double exhibition exploring the role of the human face to map history, personality and political resistance at the Clemente Center Abrazo Interno Gallery. Tine Kindermann’s ongoing project, We the People, started after the 2016 election, documents the beauty and diversity of the American people; immigrants, native Americans and slaves in a series of 25 large scale paintings derived from vintage photographs. The works are arranged on a three-tiered eight-foot high wall, an impressive visual confrontation with the humanity and diversity of the American past intensely relevant to our times.

My Metaphysical Romance maps Joel Silverstein’s wrestling with his identity as a contemporary American Jewish artist. In the fifteen recent large acrylic works shown he examines the notion of himself as the ‘New Jewish Artist’ distilled in a mix of heady late 20th century American culture and 2000 years of Jewish thought. (Because I share many of these ideas in my own artwork as well as Jewish Art in general, I will dwell extensively on Silverstein’s work. Apologies to Tine Kindermann.)

What is an artist…or more specifically what is a Jewish artist? Silverstein sees the Jewish artist as a maker of artificial life, much like the legendary Rabbi Lowe of Prague making the Golem and, later, Doctor Frankenstein! “The Golem Maker” (The Metaphor of Jewish Modernism) envisions a laboratory set in the Eldridge Street Synagogue in which “artificially making life through religious practice, mysticism or art.” The painting is bifurcated, Dr. Frankenstein and his monster on the right, the ‘Golem’ being created with the Alte Neue Shul of Prague resting on his chest. On the left the artist himself; garbed in a protective gas mask, stands above a model of the Second Temple, the paradoxical source of his cultural legitimacy. Can indeed the power of Jewish Art act to save the Jewish people from their enemies as Rabbi Lowe thought the Golem could?

Of course the enemies of the Jews are at times no match for the enemies within the Jewish people themselves. “The Plagued Man” addresses the struggles of the contemporary secular Jew by presenting a portrait of a friend of the artist who was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his teens and committed suicide at 30. Seen here he is haunted by forces beyond his control, both social and painterly. This audacious painting introduces a radically new motif of red, yellow and green scribbles floating above the primary image. Looking carefully, the scribbles coalesce into images from the Amsterdam Haggadah. They act as floating memories, flashes of Jewish cultural insights and accusations delineating the subject’s distance with his own cultural past.

Ask most educated Jews who the first Jewish artist was and the biblical Bezalel will be the answer. Silverstein passionately agrees and assigns him as “the titular head of a divinely inspired Jewish Art.” In Silverstein’s vision, “Bezalel,” he sits with the Second Temple at his feet, (almost a casual creation) while the model of the Golem and his modern reflection, the Hulk, hover over him. Silverstein opines that “Divinely inspired art is dangerous…and making art is inherently dangerous.” Significantly Bezalel the man is depicted as an ‘African native’ who reaches back to the historical ‘original man.’ Nonetheless, this Bezalel is readily recognizable as American black man, chewing on short cigar and clad in red and white knee high socks and sneakers ready for the basketball court. Silverstein is smashing all cultural stereotypes in making a transgressive artist hero ready to go out and change the world!

To make art takes time, skill…but perhaps most of all…IDENITY! Alas, exactly who are you Jewish Artist? Silverstein’s “Black Hat, Blue Shirt” poses the question in stark terms. We see the artist seemingly frozen in the high beams of an oncoming vehicle. He is brandishing his Superman undershirt (representing the heroic Jewish spirit embodied in superhero comics) while crowned by the archetypical Black Hat of Orthodox Judaism that proclaims his Jewish cultural and religious history! In the background of spare foliage, Comic Heroes and Heroines are the cultural evidence of 20th century pulp culture. Silverstein’s exploration of Jewish-American identity was inspired by a Brighton Beach incident. Once the young Silverman was wearing a Superman T shirt on the beach. He was taunted by a non-Jewish family who yelled, “Look, there’s Superman Jew!” The epithet stuck and became his badge of honor. Let them laugh now as he proudly makes art with this very Super Jewish identity.

Joel Silverstein’s exhibition, My Metaphysical Romance, is remarkable in many aspects.

First of all he does not flinch from using explicit Biblical and Jewish historical metaphors to confront contemporary issues of identity. Secondly the very role of the artist in Jewish history as well as contemporary practice is lauded in extraordinary terms. And finally his heroic use of superhero motifs to express his affirmation of 20th century Jewish cultural production casts the Comic Book universe in an entirely new light.

Perhaps indeed Jewish Art can change our perception of the world.