Jewish art culture: Movin’ on up to the East side

A crowd of people has gathered inside a shipping container set in a parking lot in the Pico-Union neighborhood of Los Angeles.
May 21, 2014

A crowd of people has gathered inside a shipping container set in a parking lot in the Pico-Union neighborhood of Los Angeles. Ambient lights blink on and off, and musicians play droning sounds, while a video art installation of traffic at the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro plays on iPads built into wooden shipping crates.

This is the second iteration of Culture Lab, a project of the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center (SIJCC) to bring artists — Jewish and non-Jewish alike — to examine a specific topic through a Jewish lens.

The inaugural event, held in February, focused on an oil theme. The interactive installation was created by a group of four artists working in sculpture, graphic design, video and mixed media. The second event’s theme is disguise, and the artists took a far less literal approach to the subject.

All of the artists were nominated to become part of the project, and then were thrown together for four months with the challenge of coming up with collaborative approaches to represent a theme. The artists work in different formats and disciplines, and represent a range of age, gender, academic and religious backgrounds. A Jewish scholar is also assigned to help the group answer historical and theological questions.

One of the themes that emerged in their discussions was the symbolism of the number 7, tied to the seven species of fruits and grains named in the Bible: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates. One of the artists, Raphael Arar, shot video footage of grapes and then digitally altered it into a looping stream that was projected inside the shipping container.

“Symbols are a form of disguise,” Arar said. “One of the phrases we stumbled across is ‘communication is labyrinth.’ In something as basic as communication theory, you have a transmitter and a receiver, and the signal goes through. Sometimes the signal is disguised. [If] you’re talking to me, you put on a different face than if you were talking to your mom, or your best friend, or a dog.” 

The music, performed by Arar, bassist Brian Griffith and installation artist Helen Lessick, also fits into this mode of thought. While Arar and Griffith looped synthesizer and bass guitar sounds through effects pedals, Lessick waved her hands in front of sensors attached to the walls of the container. The sensors, triggered by movement, were connected to faders that adjusted the musical transmission. As a result, the container itself became a musical instrument, while audience members also became collaborators in the sonic output.

Griffith is also an animation and Web artist, and he contributed another video projection of psychedelic looping images of the biblical seven species. Lessick represented the theme more literally, filming a series of masks left over from a New Year’s Eve party on the Queen Mary ocean liner-turned-hotel in Long Beach. She embedded her video player inside wooden crates, which were left over from the previous Culture Lab exhibit.

Yelena Zhelezov, chair of the West Hollywood Commission of Arts and Cultural Affairs, created a portrait by morphing the five faces of the artists together. Instead of a line drawing, the image consisted of lines made from transcribed quotes taken from the artists’ meetings, a take on the traditional art of micrography. The artists’ efforts at communication and collaboration became, literally, the contours of their portrait, their conversations defining the physical dimensions of their faces and merging them into a single identity.

Through its connection to capitalism and trade, the shipping container, too, fit into the general theme of the show. “The container is essentially a disguise for objects,” Zhelezov said, “and that’s part of a global exchange of goods.”

Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal covered a canvas with quotes about Jews’ relationship to capitalism, both as a people pushed into money-lending by Christian authorities and as proponents of radical philosophies that undermine capitalism. The quotes are written out in waving lines that correspond to a map of global shipping trade routes. “Capitalism’s entire ethos is bent on disguising the modes of production,” Rosenthal said. “That’s [Karl] Marx’s most famous insight.”

The painting begins with a quote from Deuteronomy, regulating the practice of lending with interest: “Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury; but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon usury.” Another passage ties Stanley Fischer, former chief economist at the World Bank, to former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, and to Yaron Brook, executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute. “While there’s a very taboo relationship between Jews and capitalism,” Rosenthal said, “there’s also this very real relationship.” 

One purpose of Culture Lab is to connect the Jewish community with the many artists living in Silver Lake, according to Dan Friedman, program director at the SIJCC. “Geographically, where we’re located represents a pretty packed creative class. We’re representing Jews but also a geographic area.”

But the organizers also see Culture Lab as a way to help Jewish artists and their work gain more prominence. “Jewish art needs a more active voice defining it, moving forward,” Friedman said. “It has an antiquated idea of what that is, and I think there’s a real vibrant community of artists from Jewish backgrounds who are exploring what their voices are. And to provide a platform for that conversation is really important to us in our role as an arts and cultural center.”

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