February 27, 2020

Artist Zhenya Gershman adds dose of ‘Awe’ to UCLA Hillel

As congregants climb the stairs to reach High Holy Days services at UCLA Hillel, they will be surrounded by far more than empty walls. 

Hard to miss will be a towering 11-foot-tall canvas, an oil painting depicting an ethereal, cupped pair of hands adorning the wall just outside the sanctuary.

“That’s exactly the idea,” said Zhenya Gershman, the Russian-born artist responsible for the work and its placement. Standing before the piece, titled “Lift,” she giddily descended a few steps then strode back up, arms open wide. 

“They will be greeted by God’s hands,” she said.

“Lift,” along with 10 other larger-than-life pieces, make up her latest collection, aptly called “Days of Awe,” a reference to the 10-day period beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur. “Days of Awe” will be on display through December at the Dortort Center for Creativity in the Arts at UCLA Hillel’s Hilgard Avenue home. It will be prominently featured in and around the third-floor sanctuary, which doubles as an art gallery, during the High Holy Days services led by the congregation’s rabbi, Aaron Lerner.

The works are mostly varied portraits of Gershman’s often-used model Mark Snyder — the back of his head, a magnified profile, or just his hands in “Lift.” They toy with neutral grays and Rembrandt-inspired plays of light that help bring out a water-like translucency. She also used ceramic tools normally meant for clay to carve into layers of paint. One of the effects is providing the skin with realism; even the fingerprints have distinctive raised lines. It’s a technique she discovered by accident.

“With art, you’re either on cloud nine or you want to die. There’s nothing in between,” she said. “I was having a bad day. It’s subconscious. I saw this tool and grabbed it and, in my agony, I just slashed. It removed the paint that was there and it revealed some of the layers underneath. It created this dimensionality and sculptural texture that I had never seen anywhere in other people’s art or in my art. I couldn’t stop. I was like a kid in a candy store.”

Gershman said she hopes the works inspire introspection within viewers.

“These paintings were made as an amplification of this meditative process. They are helping you, in my mind, and the way that I intended for them to be viewed, to facilitate you finding your humanity, your stability and your core,” she said. 

Perla Karney, the Dortort Center’s artistic director, said holding Conservative High Holy Days services with massive displays of artwork is certainly a first. She had the idea when she met Gershman at an art fair several months ago. She said she was moved by a striking portrait of a pensive Snyder.

“He looked otherworldly and was staring at me,” Karney said. “I took down [Gershman’s] contact information and, I suppose, the rest is history.”

Karney, who admitted to being a longtime fan, commissioned Gershman to put together a solo exhibition for the Dortort Center meant to coincide with the High Holy Days. Upon seeing the results, she said she and Lerner felt strongly that the collection would heighten the message of services, not detract from it.

“I find that Zhenya’s art conveys the human condition in a deeply spiritual, mystical way,” she said. “It is therefore so fitting to show her exhibit ‘Days of Awe’ during the High Holy Days at Hillel. Her art is a meditation on life and its profound mystery, something we can never fully understand but stand in awe of.”

Born in Moscow, the internationally renowned artist held her first solo exhibition in St. Petersburg at age 14 and was hailed as a prodigy in her native Soviet Union. Gershman, who now lives in Brentwood, immigrated to the United States as a teenager in 1991. She’s widely known for her portraiture work, which is housed in public and private collections around the world. The Grammy MusiCares Foundation selected Gershman to create portraits of Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan; her portrait of Sting is part of the permanent collection of the Arte Al Limite Museum in Santiago, Chile.

Gershman said that her latest solo exhibition is one of her most meaningful.

While growing up, Gershman and her family faced daunting anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, unable to openly practice Judaism. She wore a Star of David necklace underneath her clothes but never learned much in the form of Jewish customs or traditions. Her inclusion in Lerner’s services, in a way, brings everything full circle.

“I’m very spiritual and I feel my Jewish roots that were forbidden deep within me. But services and prayers were always foreign to me,” she said. “That was cut down from the roots of my family. It’s very meaningful to now create a work that will participate in a ritual. It’s not a Bible illustration, and it’s not meant to be prayed to. But it is for raising spiritual awareness.”

Gershman has never attended High Holy Days services. This Rosh Hashanah at UCLA’s Hillel will be her first.

“For me to know that 500 people will be facing the ark framed by my artwork on either side, and everyone will be experiencing the Torah through my work, I can’t even describe how that makes me feel,” she said, becoming emotional. “For me, art is a way to communicate with people and, in this, their most intimate state of prayer and meditation, with my art used to heighten and communicate the experience — that’s paradise. I’ll probably be a ghost in the back just crying.”

The official “Days of Awe” opening is Oct. 26, and is free and open to the public. n