Filling a Gallery With Faith

As you approach the Barbara Mendes Gallery on South Robertson Boulevard, you know you’re in for an experience. The brightly colored, psychedelic exterior of the little gallery in the SoRo neighborhood doesn’t cry out Jewish art, and neither does the gallery’s proprietor at first glance. Barbara Mendes looks every bit the ex-hippie, from her tie-dyed clothes to her funky glasses, but when she opens her mouth and starts chattering about kashrut and the Tehillim, you realize that you’re speaking to a woman who’s been on a journey to finding her very Jewish self and her Jewish art.

“My life is a thread of miracles,” Mendes said, smiling broadly. “I was always an artist … by the time I got to kindergarten, I was, like, take me to the art corner.” Her first miracle, she said, was that her parents recognized her talent and enrolled her in art schools, where she thrived. Although her parents were Jewish, they didn’t give her much of a Jewish education, and religion wasn’t stressed in her household.

After graduating from high school, Mendes embarked on a career as an independent comic-book artist under the nom de plume Willy Mendes. Her comics, now included in numerous anthologies, show the groundwork of the style, with its intricate details, psychedelic motifs and bright colors that now mark her paintings.

“What’s interesting is, searching for spirituality, look how mystic this is,” Mendes said, pointing to one of her early comics, “but shame on me … Hindu!”

So how did Mendes move from a self-described spiritual seeker who leaned toward Buddhism and embraced hippie culture to become a practicing Orthodox Jew? According to Mendes, it started with a wall. “I was painting a mural on Fairfax, and a guy said, ‘Excuse me to stop you, but I want you to paint my synagogue.’”  

Mendes was intrigued. She’d never painted a synagogue, never really done much in the way of Jewish art, but she figured that because she was Jewish, she’d accept. When Mendes found out the synagogue she’d be painting was the Pinto Torah Center — a Sephardic congregation dedicated to outreach and Torah study in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood — she knew that a strange force was at work. “The Mendeses and Pintos are like this,” said Mendes, weaving her hands together to show the closeness of two of the most prominent Sephardic families in the Americas.

After getting reacquainted with her Judaism, Mendes, who’d had two children with her first husband before divorcing, met her second husband and started going to yeshiva on her own four nights a week.  “I became religious late in life, at age 45,” said Mendes, now in her 60s.

 “Once I began learning and once I attended a year of the Torah cycle in the synagogue, I did a Bereshit mural to celebrate.” That mural started Mendes on a path that took her through painting out Shemot, and now to Vayikra, a mural-sized oil painting that serves as a centerpiece in her gallery’s current exhibition, “Jewish Art in Elul and the New Year.”

Mendes’ Vayikra mural is stunning in its size and detail. Stretching 16 feet wide, it illustrates pictorially every passage of the Torah portion. Everything from the laws of kashrut to the rules about whom the High Priest can marry is sketched out in intricate vignettes. The painting took nearly three years to complete, Mendes said.  

Several other artists join Mendes in the exhibition. Sarah Devora Podolski created two variations on the Star of David. Rae Antonoff shows off some very impressive micrography, creating scenes featuring biblical women drawn by writing words from their stories in tiny Hebrew. Rae Shagalov’s work is mainly calligraphy, much of it drawn from inspirational teachings from different rabbis. Aharon Aba ben Avraham’s work draws heavily from rabbinic tales. And Freda Nessim has some clever takes on God.  

Most interesting, other than Mendes’ work, is that of Yorum Partush. One piece, a sculptural wall-hanging dedicated to Partush’s deceased brother, includes a tallit and more than two dozen real shofars. Partush’s other piece, which references the Holocaust, includes tefillin boxes, barbed wire and working lights, weaving them into an installation that evokes the trains that were used to transport Jews to concentration camps.

“Jewish art is not like contemporary art,” Mendes said.  “Contemporary art is saying, ‘These are my deepest feelings; I hope you’re interested enough to want to have them in your house.’… We’re offering interpretations of the religion that we share a love for.”

Mendes is proud that the majority of artists in this show are women. “Judaism is the royal road,” she said. “However, 5,000 years ago there was a different perspective of women, and I do not submit to that view of women. 

“As a woman-run gallery, you’d better believe I give a voice to women,” Mendes said. “I’m also interested in being a role model to young women because I’m deeply disturbed by the larger culture,” she said, referring to the world outside her Orthodox community.

“I’m a fan of pop music. Some of these songs I just love, and I belt them out when they come on the radio. Love ’em!  ‘Starships!’ ” said Mendes, referring to the hit song by Nicki Minaj.  

“But, oh my God, when I saw that woman performing on the video, I was horrified, because this is burlesque. … It’s fine, but not for my granddaughter.”

Mendes hopes that her current exhibition portrays a much more positive image. “I wanted to start the holiday season going and involve the whole Jewish community in ‘Jewish Art in Elul,’ ” she said, smiling. “Since each Jewish artist is giving a visual expression to how they feel about Judaism … maybe it will inspire the viewer to see that their own take on Judaism and the religious process is also valid.”

“Jewish Art in Elul and the New Year” continues at the Barbara Mendes Gallery, 2701 S. Robertson Blvd., through Oct. 12 For hours and other information call (310) 558-3215 or (323) 533-6021.