Artist Arik Weiss likes to create big, bold art, pieces that make no bones about his interests.
There’s an enormous gold hamsa on his studio wall, its middle finger flipped outward in an unmistakable message. On another wall is a photograph of Weiss’s face, completely wrapped mummy-style in the black leather straps of his phylacteries, and nearby is a black-and-white print of a face, this one covered with a gas mask but also with the black box of phylacteries perched on top.
He brings out his tefillin rings — one a chunky dark silver band that looks like a miniature phylacteries box, and another that looks like two straps wrapped around the finger.
“When secular people look at it they say, Wow, the religion really has you in its grasp,” he said. “When religious people see it they say, What a disgrace of God’s name, why are you playing with tefillin?”
Weiss is unfazed by the comments.
“This is the life of Arik,” he said with a grin. “This work says that it’s the experience of placing phylacteries — to show through art my sanctification of God’s name, my connection to God — that comes from love. It’s my life, and I can’t split the two.”
He’s tried. Oh, how he’s tried.
He worked for decades in advertising and graphic design, creating concepts, packaging and taglines for products.
(In fact, he still dabbles in that as his day job, with clients that include the Lechem Shel Tomer bakery, Fishen Chips. and Burgers Bar, whose black-and-white design bears a strong resemblance to tefillin boxes.)
“I was ‘the guy in the kippah,'” said the Wizo-trained Weiss of his Tel Aviv years. “That’s how they identified me.”
About nine years ago he decided to go public with the ideas that had been banging around in his head for ages, all of them revolving around his life as a modern Orthodox Jew living in Kfar Adumim, a Jewish settlement over the Green Line, just outside Jerusalem.
“If God was my client, how would I brand him?” Weiss said. “Everything I see, God is in the details.”
In the most literal of ways, too.
Weiss’ works are tagline commentaries on the most common, daily facets of his very Jewish life.
He makes rolls of thick masking tape printed with words like hametz, the leavened products traditionally eschewed by Jews on Passover. Why tape? Because the Hebrew word for tape, devek, is at the root of deveikut, the term used for adhering to God and God’s word.
He makes hunks of artisanal lemongrass-or cinnamon-scented soaps printed with the Hebrew phrase neki chapa’im, or clean hands, which also has a dual meaning. In Psalms, it refers to hands that are metaphorically clean.
For another exhibit, he created a series of stamps, each one with a word that refers to a prayer in the Yom Kippur liturgy about who shall live and who shall die.
He has also created sterling silver kiddush cups, one of which, the $1,000 Kiddush To Go, looks like a takeout coffee cup. Apparently liking the theme of single-use plastic products, he also makes the Disposable Silver Cup, another sterling silver item designed to look like it’s destined for a landfill.
“It’s very conceptual, very Jewish,” said Weiss.
When he decided to let his artistic side lead, he headed to an upscale Tel Aviv gallery, without a kippah on his head. But within minutes of meeting the directors he told them he was religious, lived in a West Bank settlement, and was politically right-wing.
These gallery directors “didn’t represent people who were religious, and certainly not religious settlers,” he said.
But when they saw his work, it spoke for itself, said Weiss.
They showed his work in “Totafot,” a one-man show. It included “Before You,” white, life-size figures of a man — molded in Weiss’ image — standing, bending and prostrate in prayer. Other tefillin pieces in the show were his bedside tables, black, attached to the wall, and configured like giant boxes of phylacteries; a plate of tefillin spaghetti; and a red stop sign with a hand wrapped in the leather straps.
“It’s conceptual but also functional,” he said. “It tells the story of my intimacy with God.”
Since that exhibit in Tel Aviv, he’s had several more solo exhibits and participated in many group shows, including the Jerusalem Biennale. In fact, he’s found himself becoming more religious than before, with a closer connection to God because he continues to examine those ties on a daily basis.
“I’ve been working on my art more and more, and it’s connected me anew to God. I think about God all day,” he said.
Recently he’s been delving into graphically designed commentary on gematria, a code that assigns a numerical value to each Hebrew letter, which when added up reveals hidden meanings behind a name, word or phrase.
For this is a guy who still loves branding, and for whom everything is a play on words.
His stark, black-and-white gematria prints bear a resemblance to the geometrically divided page of Talmud, another recent obsession. Weiss has been toying with those pages for weeks, considering them in 3D form or as a grid of squares and rectangles that form high-rise towers or agricultural fields.
“For me, I have to feel it in my gut, it has to tell me something,” he said.
While he now spends less time on design and more on his art, he approaches his art projects and his exhibits like an advertising guy, first coming up with the concept then producing his often pricey, technologically challenging projects using 3D printers and high-end molds.
“I’m different from other artists,” he said. “When I have an idea, I think about how it will look in the exhibit. I don’t make things and then sell them, I work in reverse.”