When you imagine “folk art,” what kind of paintings come to mind? Bright, vibrant colors? A flattened-out, comic book-style perspective? Magical and mythical creatures stretched into otherworldly proportions?
These attributes are all characteristic of folk paintings throughout the world, but the style is also found in European art before the Renaissance, when almost everyone painted this way. Medieval artisans of all socioeconomic backgrounds — rich and poor, rural and urban, self-taught and formally trained — conjured many-headed dragons and man-eating Tarasques, to be conquered and slain by heroic men, or sometimes tamed and leashed by intrepid women. But eventually, the arbiters of high culture began expecting paintings with techniques like vanishing-point perspective to depict the physical world in a more literal way.
The fantastical medieval aesthetic did not end there, however. As Jews fled increased persecution in Western Europe, they brought their art with them. Most made their way to the Pale of Settlement, the swath of Eastern Europe in which they were permitted to live. Without the pressure to conform to the society they had left behind, they covered their wooden houses of prayer in murals of holy text illustrated by flowers, astrological constellations, serpents, lions, even unicorns. There once were more than two hundred such synagogues. Very few survived the Holocaust.
Contemporary New York painter, book artist, writer, and editor Susan Bee is a direct descendant of the Jewish handicraft tradition. The daughter of luminary European Jewish immigrant artists Miriam and Sigmund Laufer and the great-granddaughter of a Torah scribe, Bee is both continuing this legacy and reinventing it for the 21st century. Her latest solo show, which runs through April 16th at the A.I.R. Gallery in Brooklyn, offers a portal into the eclipsed magic of the Medieval world.
The exhibition’s beating heart is a series of four paintings depicting scenes of the apocalypse, based on a richly illustrated French manuscript from the 12th century. They offer a strikingly jolly-looking portrayal of seven-headed semi-humanoid dragons, multicolored praying supplicants, and equally uncanny would-be heroes. She has magnified the merriment of the original illuminations with her trademark shining colors, glimmering with embellishments of gold and neon polka dots.
“I want to make it colorful,” she told Hyperallergic. “I want people to enjoy it, even though it’s kind of demonic.”
While it may seem odd to illustrate doom and destruction with cartoonish hilarity, communities facing extinction have long turned to joyful mockery as a bulwark against hopelessness. The Jewish tradition is no exception. The mystical images that adorn the walls of the Gwoździec synagogue in Ukraine were painted in the wake of the 1648 Chmielnicki massacres, in which tens of thousands of Jews were killed. The Purim spiel, an annual event celebrated in many Jewish communities during our most carnivalesque holiday, uses dry and often macabre humor to mock those who have attempted to exterminate us and celebrate our continued survival. “There is something in a lot of Jewish lore, including the sense of humor, which is very dark,” Bee observed. “Because of the sort of tragic trajectory of the Jewish people, it’s hard to have an overly optimistic point of view.” But as her work shows, Jews long ago learned to laugh in the face of evil.
Bee wielded this ability to smile through catastrophe as she continued her distinct brand of whimsically surrealist paintings to quell her own fears during the Donald Trump administration and the COVID-19 lockdown. “I realize I’m making this work to cheer myself up, especially during the pandemic when I was very isolated,” she noted.
The wall opposite the “apocalypse” paintings contains a series of paintings based on Catholic women saints, each one taming a ferocious beast. Just as Jews are meant to get so drunk on Purim that we confuse the story’s hero and its villain, Bee also plays freely with the balance between good and evil. Pointing to the dragon sliced open by St. Margaret, she said, “I feel a little sorry for the dragon. It’s very pathetic … it’s kind of sad. I kind of like the beasts.” St. Margaret emerges from the beast’s belly, white as snow. “I wanted her to be really neutral, and very pure.”
Another painting depicts St. Martha confronting a dragon. As in the original painting, Bee notes, she doesn’t kill the dragon, “she just tames it and then she puts it on the leash. I was interested in the idea of evil, how you tame the personification of evil.” What powers does St. Martha tap into as she holds a demon on a leash? What allows her to gaze tenderly at the wild beast gnashing its fangs, with the poor soul’s legs dangling out of its bloody mouth?
Some may wonder what draws Bee to such explicitly Christian images. “I’m using a lot of medieval Christian iconography, but putting it on my own terms.” Replacing their crosses with flowers, Bee brings their stories into the secular world, while retaining their distinctively spiritual air of feminine power.
Bee saw this form of power in the 20 other women artists, by the likes of legendary pioneers including Nancy Spero and Howardena Pindell, who founded the A.I.R. Gallery in 1972 when few other galleries were open to showing women’s artwork. “It’s kind of a matriarchal situation where women came together and formed a gallery because they couldn’t get shown,” the artist said.
A member since 1997, Bee notes that many of those founders, and many of the women who have been represented by the gallery in the half-century since, have been Jewish. “I feel like it should be talked about,” she said. Many of these women often came from families that invested far more time and effort into the success of their sons than of their daughters. But even so, in many ways, the women tended to run the show.
While steadfast in her position as a contemporary woman and artist, Bee says, “It’s a little strange to say, but I feel like some part of me is a little medieval in my thinking. Really, the Torah scribes were coming out of a kind of medieval thinking,” Bee reflects. “And even what my parents did with calligraphy and gold leaf, I grew up seeing them making manuscripts. […] If I had been incarnated at a different time, I probably would’ve been a manuscript writer.”
Like the saints in her paintings, following in a long line of Jewish crafters and storytellers, Bee transforms visions of evil into playthings. She, too, is taming beasts.