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Diverse Sites Offer Frame of Reference for Jewish Art

October 2, 2008 By:
Rita Rosen Poley, JE Feature
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"Ark of the Covenant," by Howard Lerner

Two current exhibitions demonstrate the broad forms of expression that characterize contemporary Jewish Art. They are also indicative of the range of local venues in which one can find examples of the Jewish creative spirit.

The Museum of Jewish Art at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia is a long-recognized, respected museum and exhibition space. Moderne Life Interiors, a well-known furniture and design store on Old York Road in Jenkintown, is not. However, both are worth a visit to see what's up in the world of Jewish art.

At the Museum of Jewish Art, "Howard Lerner -- Visionary Biblical Sculptures: Found Object Constructions" is on display through Nov. 7. The installation consists of six very large, biblically inspired, mixed-media works.

Each, constructed from an amalgam of broken and found objects repurposed to a new whole, is accompanied by an extensive statement by the artist that describes the complicated meaning of the theme and the artist's purposeful choice of how each object contributes to the storytelling.

Lerner's writings and subjects indicate a deep involvement with Jewish scripture and its contemporary significance. From "Tower of Babel" to "Ezekiel's Vision" to "Ark of the Covenant," there is much to be contemplated. Although the artist's starting point is scriptural, viewers who follow Lerner's train of thought will discover yoga, Steven Spielberg and much more in the mix.

These intricate sculptures are not beautifully polished. Stylistically, in their roughness, they are inspired more by "outsider art," than by Michelangelo. Lerner, however, is no unschooled, instinctive artist; his formal training is extensive, as are the many awards he has won.

Among his previous exhibitions is the landmark show "Golem! Danger, Deliverance and Art," at the Jewish Museum in New York.

I particularly liked the artist's interpretation of "Noah's Ark," with its animals, dove, olive branch and more, all installed in the vessel, suspended from the wall and seeming to float on inverted painted baskets.

His "Tower of Babel" is also extraordinarily successful. The artist's vision, the choice of objects he incorporates into the "Tower" and his statement all fuse together to give an ancient story a contemporary and unique slant. Lerner has created uncommon beauty out of common ugliness.

Meanwhile, At Moderne Interiors, local artist Alaina Silverman is exhibiting photographs taken in 2007 while on a trip to Europe and Israel. Most of the displayed photographs -- shown through Oct. 19 -- are from Israel, with others drawn from her sojourn studying photography in Rome.

Good News, Bad News

The fact that Silverman's work is interwoven with the store's furniture is both the good news and the bad news. On one hand, one can easily envision living with the photographs. On the other hand, in such a domestic setting, it is difficult to regard them as art, which is unfortunate.

Silverman has an eye for the unsuspected moment, whether it is an Orthodox father playing with his young children or young women praying at the Western Wall.

She is also keenly aware of color, and her supersaturated photos of kipot for sale, or of rolls of fabric in a market, work to heighten our awareness of color.

The photographer avoids, for the most part, the expected, clichéd images of life in Israel. Obviously, her perspective is very personal but, as we see her ability to frame a scene, we know that her eye is also critical and disciplined.

Unfortunately, a few manipulated, overlayed images are not nearly as successful as those that convey her simple vision.

According to a gallery statement, "By displaying her work in the community, Alaina hopes to portray a side of Europe and the Middle East that most people do not get to see, a side that is not just about religion and war, but rather about people, families and the constant battles faced by all mankind."

For the most part, in this modest presentation, the artist has succeeded.

For information on the Museum of Jewish Art, call 215-627-6747; for Moderne Life Interiors, call 215-886-8490.

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