Art

Contradictory Narratives of Contemporary Art, Informed by Jewish Thought

Gülsün Karamustafa First of May (Woman Constantly Sewing Red Flags with her Sewing Machine), 1978 Mixed media on paper 27⅝ x 19¾ in. (70.2 x 50.2 cm) Collection of Rampa, Istanbul © Gülsün Karamustafa, image provided by the artist
Gülsün Karamustafa, “First of May (Woman Constantly Sewing Red Flags with her Sewing Machine)” (1978), mixed media on paper, 27⅝ x 19¾ inches (Collection of Rampa, Istanbul, © Gülsün Karamustafa, image courtesy the artist)

The contemporary art museum has moved away from the legacy of Orientalist display to becoming a complex entity that merges the art gallery, theme park, classroom, and marketplace, among other things, under the same roof. Yet this transformation has not spared the museum from a crisis that seems to be both permanent and endless: day after day we hear calls to end the museum format, to kill the white cube, to bring the museum to the “real” world. But the internal contradictions born out of the contemporary institution’s polyphonic structure are perhaps more dynamic than circumstantial: It is not only inevitable but also necessary that the museum constantly be a place of contradiction, simply because so is the world. But in addressing the necessity to make a case for difference, for otherness, for marginality, for diversity, the museum has challenged, if not undermined, its own walls, and has made a paradox out of the institution.

When the curators at New York’s Jewish Museum began putting together the exhibit Unorthodox, the question arose as to how to be an institution and a paradox at the same time, or how to embrace constant contradiction. As detailed in the exhibition’s catalogue, Jewish Museum curators engaged in conversations about the role of the museum with other curators from a broad range of institutions — from the Tensta Konsthall to the Sculpture Center in New York — only to realize that they were dealing less with the administrative structure of institutions and more with social structures, systems, and dynamics in general.

We tend to achieve “truths” through problem solving — we conceive of truth as a singular, rather than multiple, answer. How to embrace complexity, then? While it is true that modern subjects carry multiple voices and identities, pregnant with contradiction and difference, we still present ourselves as singular subjects, speaking through a single channel. How can art enable or disable difference, and what happens when cultural industries devour and overturn this process?

Exhibition view of Unorthodox at The Jewish Museum, NY
Installation view of ‘Unorthodox’ at The Jewish Museum, New York (photo by David Heald)

Unorthodox, which addresses how art today might embrace the kind of complexity we demand from politics and history, is a large catalogue of paradoxes, or, in more material terms, of objects whose cultural significance is still ambiguous. From the “First of May” drawings by the early conceptual Turkish artist Gülsün Karamustafa, to the actions and interventions of Prague’s Jirí Kovanda, to the imploding paintings-cum-sites of Joseph Beuys’s student Michael Buthe, the exhibition breathes through and through a demand to inject contemporary art with more meaning, and to combine art, theory, and our world in more seamless ways. The problem, as the outrageous expressions and muted gestures of Weimar-era cabaret dancer Valeska Gert tell us in the show, is that this is an impossible demand on which we must nevertheless insist: Gert was banned from the stage when the Nazis came to power.

Jiri Kovanda, “Hanging Sleeves, Hiding Hands” (2013), made in collaboration with Eva Koeatkova, performance and object (image courtesy the artist) (click to enlarge)

And what is this incredibly dissimilar group of artists and interests doing in a Jewish museum, or why? Between the narrated fables of Filipino painter Brenda Fajardo that chronicle the life of women foreign workers, and the simple but stunning personal topographies by Park McArthur, how do we discern from this large ensemble, conceived as a kind of atonal symphony, a relationship to either orthodoxy or Jewishness? The answer is very complex but amply visible (and readable) in the exhibition: Unorthodox is not about orthodox/unorthodox as a binary system, but feeds from the Jewish tradition’s postulate that truth, rather than being achieved at the end of a long chain of formal logic, requires a dialogical relationship between the life of the mind and the life of the community. What is specifically Jewish about the show isn’t in content or form but an interpretative framework that inspired the curators Jens Hoffmann, Daniel S. Palmer, and Kelly Taxter to look beyond the established discourses on contemporary art.

The exhibition’s gaze at marginality is defined in a very specific way: these works are not marginalized from the world of art; the artists are not outsiders, or simply unknown. The margins being constructed here are internal: These are works that have a place in the history of art but that for one reason or another, have not been codified. The artists here tell narratives that haven’t completely bubbled up to the surface, share life experiences and ideas that disclose unfinished or forgotten histories, and make work that overlaps with cinema, theater, literature, satire, and politics. The graphic arts in particular feature prominently in Unorthodox and span many genres and regions, rescuing art from the sterile rigidity of contemporary abstraction and opening up an alternative visual language: Works like “Untitled” (1978) by E’wao Kagoshima, which responds to Western influences by developing a satirical canon out of the “exotic” in Eastern cultural representation, or Stephen Goodfellow’s “Vandals” (1983), which applies commercial color printing techniques to fine art and deals with a kind of surrealism inflected by pop and internet aesthetics.

Stephen Goodfellow Vandals, 1983 Acrylic on canvas 48 x 72 in. (121.9 x 182.9 cm) Susan and Alan Lichtenstein Collection, Michigan
Stephen Goodfellow, “Vandals” (1983), acrylic on canvas, 48 x 72 inches (image courtesy the Susan and Alan Lichtenstein Collection, Michigan)

From the paintings of the color-blind photorealistic artist David Rosenak, to the surrealistic weaved tapestries of Christina Forrer, to the strange and fragmentary canvases of Amikam Toren, the impulse to organize this show by chronology or concept is replaced by a realization that everything happens at the same time, all the time. And if you’re following the trends in the art world, and of what is being shown in American museums, then you’ll probably be disappointed by the lack of familiar names, but surprised by a definition of diversity that goes beyond identity politics and the strictly visible. With 50-something artists in the show, the museum becomes an archipelago: Remote islands appear in close proximity.

Orthodoxies and heterodoxies are not only dynamic but also interchangeable, so that works like the 1980 untitled painting by Brazilian pseudo-outsider artist Amadeo Luciano Lorenzato inhabit different periods in local and global contexts — Lorenzato is a modernist in the Brazilian context of the 20th century but contemporary for us when viewed alongside Zoë Paul or Tony Cox. Many of the artists in the show oscillate between different countries and periods as a result of migrations, cross-pollination, and historical transition. The speculative possibility of an unorthodox museum, central to the theoretical framework of the show, takes on different forms depending on which direction one navigates the exhibition, again returning to an idea central to the Jewish tradition: Different systems of truth, even contradictory ones, can inhabit the same sphere of knowledge and representation. It is precisely this lack of consensus that liberates art from the tyranny of reason.

Exhibition view of Unorthodox at The Jewish Museum, NY
Installation view of ‘Unorthodox’ at The Jewish Museum, New York (photo by David Heald)

”Dogma is not a consequence of religion, but rather of the dynamics into which reason has unfolded,” writes Mara Borda in her essay on the Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen, from which we infer that the binary orthodox/unorthodox is less a problem of tradition and more a fundamental characteristic of the modern era. In this sense, Unorthodox is an exhibition of the 21st century, dislocated and itinerant, open-ended and contingent, all the while speaking from the walls of a 20th-century institution and referencing a rich tradition. And there is no place for innovation without tradition, which might be reinterpreted, challenged, turned upside down, adapted, or emancipated. In the West, which has a political and social history beset with the risk of rupture and discontinuity, there is a permanent anxiety about the foundations that ground knowledge and perception, so that these need to be constantly reinvented and reframed in order to stabilize self-image during periods of turbulence. Today, however, there are too many variables to be accounted for — too much data, too many possibilities, and many more identities to consider — which makes this effort more difficult to upkeep.

Exhibition view of Unorthodox at The Jewish Museum, NY
Installation view of ‘Unorthodox’ at The Jewish Museum, New York (photo by David Heald)

In these larger political structures art plays a strange role that is not quite properly understood, even by cultural producers themselves, though art is more than artifacts or objects of the world or items of exchange. As the Cambodian painter Leang Seckon writes in the exhibition catalogue, “For me [art] is a way to get through death, and a historical snapshot of that moment in time.” In his painting “Ghosts in Hell” (2014), combining ancient Khmer narratives with modern anxieties, he invites us to look into his recollections of the Cambodian civil war as both personal history and global condition, so that he moves in two temporal directions at the same time, his own gaze fixed on the past points our own at the future. This is exactly the experience of Unorthodox: We adopt different positions, depending on where and across what we stand, which is synonymous with the modern Jewish experience of putting oneself in the position of the other, inescapably and incessantly, throughout time.

Unorthodox continues at the Jewish Museum (1109 5th Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through March 27. 

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