How a Jewish Storytelling Tradition Is Reflected in Contemporary Art

With varying degrees of success, a show at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco looks at how storytelling can help us access spirituality.

Elisabeth Higgins O’Conner, “lullaby/lament” (2017) (all images by the author for Hyperallergic)

In Judaism, the word maggid describes a centuries-old classification of preacher, a proselytizer who specializes in pointedly using storytelling for a purpose — to help individuals understand and explore their own spirituality. Theirs is a lens through which people have long accessed esoteric secrets within diverse sources, from folk tales and parables to historical passages. The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco has attempted to invoke this tradition with its latest exhibition Jewish Folktales Retold: Artist as Maggid.

The museum commissioned 16 artists from across the country to draw inspiration from Jewish folk tales. The source material can largely be traced back to those stories selected by Howard Schwartz for his anthology Leaves from the Garden of Eden: One Hundred Classic Jewish Tales. Artists were free to choose which characters, plots, or themes they wished to explore, as well as their method of exploration.

A few true standouts immediately impress. Elisabeth Higgins O’Connor’s “blame/thirst” and “lullaby lament” (both from 2017) are monumental and mystifying interpretations of the well-worn golem mythos. Her artwork is site-specific and crafted in accordance with what the space seems to need and permit. Despite their size, (“lullaby/lament,” for instance, is probably four feet by seven feet at the base and ten feet high) the lace and paper in which they are at once crowned and clothed lift and dance thus adding a weightlessness which belies their enormity. These ideas are complemented by the evocation of the golden calf in “lullaby/lament” and the she-wolf in “blame/thirst.” Each of these golems are created in the guise of enemies subversive and overwhelming, respectively.

Elisabeth Higgins O’Conner, “blame/thirst” (2017)

Inez Storer’s dreamy pictures are another highlight. The source material is largely hidden, hinted at or suggested rather than confronted. Many of the pieces in the exhibition feel like a sermon, like the artist talking at the viewer about their story under study. Storer, rather, provides fertile framework to draw people in and prompt a conversation with the art. Where many of the artists think too bluntly, she questions and has the decency to leave it at that.

Inez Storer, “Excerpt” (2016)

While O’Connor and Storer explore their chosen mysteries with an eye that approaches insightful, others don’t quite attain that success. David Kasprzak’s “The Diminishing, But Never Final, Sounds of the Dying” (2017), for example, is too literal. The story it illustrates tells of a princess who is trapped but can hear any conversation in the world through the medium of a seashell. The resulting artwork is composed of a giant seashell suspended on an iron stand and containing a speaker emitting a looped track featuring both the ambient noise of the seashell and recordings of an unexplained phenomenon recorded by bystanders all over the world. While hewing so close to the source material, Kasprzak has also, perhaps, relinquished some of its spirit.

David Kasprzak, “The Diminishing, But Never Final, Sounds of the Dying” (2017)

The show as a whole is difficult to quantify. The art, collectively, feels as if displayed as a menagerie. The link from one artwork to another is fleeting and their connections seem, at worst, tenuous. Perhaps, though, those individual pieces with the emotive power of O’Connor and Storer contain enough grandeur to make up for the rest.

Jewish Folktales Retold: Artist as Maggid continues at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (736 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA 94103) through January 28, 2018.

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