Photos, oil paintings and Jewish identity

If there’s one cultural or ethnic group that can stake a claim to identity issues, it would be the Jews. Throughout history they’ve encountered numerous episodes where their identity has intersected with their very survival, be it ancient history encounters with Persians, surviving the German Nazi regime in World War II, or the constant threats to their existence they face today, in the form of their nation-state, Israel. To be clear, there are many varied issues and viewpoints to each and every conflict, but one undeniable effect has been an intensive examination of what exactly it means to be Jewish. Intensive introspection is of course the most fertile of grounds for good art, and it is in that spirit that a new exhibition seeks to uncover just what a modern Jewish identity is based on.

The exhibition Composed: Identity, Politics, Sex, is a selection of photo-based works by seven contemporary artists (Rona Yefman, Gloria Bornstein, Collier Schorr, Debbie Grossman, AA Bronson, Adi Nes and Marc Adelman) on view at The Jewish Museum until June 30, 2012. In line with the exhibition’s emphasis on modernity, the artists explore how national, ethnic, and sexual identities are expressed through photojournalism, online profile pictures and traditional portraiture, the result drawing attention on contradictions of identity and desire. A highlight of the exhibition is Adi Nes’s Untitled, from Soldiers (1996), where he critiques the Israeli culture of festishization of war with a male Israeli soldier posed David-esque and eroticized by clever spotlighting.

On the other end of the spectrum is Marc Adelman’s installation Stelen (Columns) from 2007-2011. The 32-year-old artist, who calls both San Francisco and the fashionable Berlin home, uses a collection of 50 profile pictures from a homosexual Berlin internet-dating site. The twist is that all the profile pictures are taken at the city’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, immediately raising questions of propriety at one level, and where the spheres of private and sexual desires overlaps into collective remembrance. The photos are not provocative in any sense – but the figures, all casually posed, provide a nearly comical critique more traditional members of the Jewish community might find offensive.

The religious orthodoxy are also targets of the artists, especially in Gloria Bornstein’s photo-documentary feminist performance piece, Public Document (1977). In a series of photos compiled into a video, the artist is shown dressed in several layers of women and men’s Orthodox Jewish clothes; she then ritually undresses in each photo, with the images suggesting not just an erotic undertone, but questions of the role of religion in informing political decisions of the Jewish people, and the idea whether full disclosure is possible in such a tightly guarded part of the community. A final highlight of the exhibition is Yefman’s In Martha Bouke and Andy’s Flowers, Visit at the Museum (2011) which incorporates Warhol elements into a performance piece, where the artist dresses up as an 80-year-old great-grandfather and Holocaust survivor, wearing a pokerfaced mask and making his way through the museum. The piece questions the commoditisation of the holocaust – certainly not a topic for a faint-hearted artist to explore.

The exhibition is itself part of a larger exhibition known as Culture and Continuity: The Jewish Journey, which features nearly 800 artworks, including canvas artwork, that looks at the evolution of modern Jewish identity. We’d highly recommend heading to the museum if you can, for not just insights into art, but a culture and identity that has impacted the world.

Olivia Preston is passionate about everything on paintings and arts. When she’s not having fun she writes on oil paintings. For more information on and oil painting reproductions you can visit http://www.cheapoilpainting.com