Giving The Familiar A New Look

JTS’ ‘Visualizing the Text’ show brings artwork into the building ‘in a way it hasn’t been before.’

03/19/2013
Jewish Week Book Critic
Part of Danielle Durchslag’s photo installation. Rachel Kanter’s textile designs.
Part of Danielle Durchslag’s photo installation. Rachel Kanter’s textile designs.

In the entrance hallway of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Ben Rubin’s new video installation projects light onto Broadway and into the lobby and adjacent courtyard. Suspended from the high ceiling, the screen carries a series of 5,378 colored images, each inspired by a page of the Talmud.

Rubin can’t read the text, but has long been drawn to the geometric designs, with blocks of text of different sizes in mostly concentric patterns, and narrow margins providing white space.

His installation is part of a new exhibition at JTS, “Reading the Visual/Visualizing the Text,” the inaugural show of the JTS Arts Advisory Board. Rubin’s work is featured along with work by four other contemporary artists, with paintings by Tobi Kahn and Jill Nathanson, textile designs by Rachel Kanter and photo installations by Danielle Durchslag.

The Arts Advisory Board was established in the spring of 2011 by Chancellor Arnold Eisen to create arts initiatives throughout JTS’ five schools. Debra Zarlin Edelman, chair of the board, explains that it was “given the mandate to bring arts to the building in a way it hasn’t been before.”

The idea behind “Reading the Visual/Visualizing the Text” is simple and creative. Members of the Visual Arts Committee, chaired by Edelman and Susan Chevlowe, offered the artists the opportunity to reach into the JTS collection and respond, either by creating a work of art, or pairing an item with something they had already done, in a site-specific installation. Given the impressive array of manuscripts, photographs, rare books and other treasures that comprise the JTS library’s world-renowned collection, this is an exhibition that was waiting to happen.

The artists’ work is now hanging in the Women’s League Seminary Synagogue on the second floor, the library, student lounge, and other hallways and alcoves, all places that are frequented. The organizers’ hope was that the work would help JTS students, faculty and staff, along with visitors to the landmark building, to look anew at what was familiar.

Not to compare the halls of JTS to the sides of subway cars, but it’s not unlike the idea of featuring poetry on New York City transit — people enjoy finding poems in unexpected places and take them in in a different way than if they were reading a book.

Danielle Durchslag dipped into the JTS photo archives, looking especially for photos labeled “Unknown.” In “Archway of the Forgotten,” she offers traces of past lives, mixing her own family photos — paper-cut portraits made using layered pieces of hand-cut paper — with striking vintage photos of anonymous people. Most are dressed formally and many are women, all with stories behind them. All the photos are hung closely together, on a wall surrounding an arch. Here, she is honoring her ancestors and also these people who are otherwise forgotten in the rare book room.

Jill Nathanson’s installation is the most straightforward conversation between art and text. Her three paintings, drawn from her 2005 series “Seeing Sinai,” were done as part of a collaboration with Arnold Eisen (when he was at Stanford University). The paintings offer a stunning abstract visual commentary on Moses’ encounter with God on Mount Sinai, based on a close reading of Exodus 33 and 34. She uses color, light and Hebrew lettering, creating air and space and dynamic energy, to represent the unseen.

Nathanson reports that studying texts with Eisen changed the way she understood the words of Torah and then the way she depicted the scenes, and for Eisen, seeing her paintings in turn influenced his interpretation of the text. He provides commentary in accompanying wall texts.

Alternate views of Moses at Sinai are provided by illustrations drawn from the library collection, with copies hanging along an adjacent hallway. In a page from the Rothschild mahzor from 1490 Florence, Moses holds up the Ten Commandments atop a green mountain, and a crowd gathers at the foot of Sinai in an illustration from the 1350 Sarajevo Haggadah.

Edelman is quick to point out that this exhibition space is not a museum. The curators faced challenges with signage (room numbers and names) and fire extinguishers hanging on the walls that couldn’t be moved. A film featuring the artists’ voices plays next to some vending machines. But all that adds to a spontaneous and fresh quality of the show.

Tobi Kahn created a series of elegant small abstract paintings in response to illuminated manuscripts selected by the Library’s art curator, Sharon Lieberman-Mintz. His works pick up the deep colors, border patterns, design motifs and rhythms of the manuscripts — including a 1487 siddur from Florence and an 1875 Judeo-Arabic Haggadah from Iraq — and present something entirely new. The paintings would command attention individually, but he has also created a careful assemblage on a high wall in the library, adding another level of interpretation and beauty.

While the illuminated pages are on view in a glass case, Kahn does not indicate which painting was inspired by which design, leaving those matches to the viewer to ponder. Kahn explains, “I want someone to look at things with new eyes.”

Rachel Kanter moved a minyan of “women” into the Women’s League Seminary Synagogue. Hanging on metal stands, the women’s figurines are draped in original tallitot, or prayer shawls, she made based on vintage aprons. Her hope is that viewers will start asking questions.

Kanter’s designs come out of her own experience. When she first put on a traditional tallit, she felt like she was wearing her father’s overcoat. Since she has always made things, she decided to study and then create her own kosher tallit complete with fringes, inspired by priestly robes worn in biblical times. The aprons are a variation. For Kanter, aprons are a quintessential women’s garment, associated with home, comfort and her grandmother.

Each tallit, with its embroidery, quilting and intricate ornamentation, tells a story, based on a traditional text. The series links to an early-20th-century colorful New Year’s Card from the library, depicting a woman draped in the American flag, an image Kanter relates to her own family’s immigrant background. “In Memory of Miss Rose Soblovitch #1” was made from Rose’s father’s tallit, based on a 1925 apron pattern found in her home. Others have themes of immigration, farming and also prayer.

In another installation, Durchslag turned a photograph of the JTS rabbinical class of 1925 on its side, and hung it on a wall of the Student Lounge. Those horizontal rabbis were grouped with other historical photos, some similarly askew, that all have a purple tinge, perhaps from aging or from the light. These portraits and group scenes were previously hanging in the seminary hallways, largely unnoticed by people walking by. Now set against a wall newly painted a lighter shade of purple, these photos are hard to miss. They provide new meanings and a touch of humor to JTS life.

Rubin, a media artist who designed “Shakespeare Machine” for the lobby of the Public Theatre in New York City, says that he enjoyed talking to members of the JTS faculty about the Talmud, in particular David Kraemer, who heads the library and is a professor of Talmud and rabbinics.

In a wall text, Kraemer states, “What you’ve got in Ben Rubin’s technology influences in a very profound way the nature of traditional Jewish identity. The question becomes: ‘How do new technologies stand to affect the nature of Jewish self-perception, identity and so forth? How will that change the nature of our study?’”

Elsewhere, Eisen is quoted on the wall: “Art is a path to the sacred and the soul that we walk with pleasure, a portal to Jewish community and Jewish meaning that one cannot walk through often enough.”

“Reading the Visual/Visualizing the Text” is on view at The Jewish Theological Seminary, 3080 Broadway (122nd Street) through May 29. For more information, go to jtsa.edu.

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