New York, ‘Jew York,’ a helluva town

New art exhibit echoes Lenny Bruce, who once said, ‘If you live in New York, even if you’re Catholic, you’re Jewish’

Erica Baum
Barbara, 2013
(Naked Eye)
Archival pigment print
(photo credit: courtesy)
Erica Baum Barbara, 2013 (Naked Eye) Archival pigment print (photo credit: courtesy)

NEW YORK — It’s impossible to make a single sweeping statement about Jews in New York, and the latest show at the city’s Zach Feuer Gallery and Untitled Gallery is too smart to try. Instead, “Jew York” — on view through July 26 — showcases an engaging, inevitably incomplete collection of works that are “Jewish,” either because of the themes they address or the artists who created them.

Ranging from playful to poignant, the 60 pieces — which went on display last week — cover a wide range of styles and artistic media, and focus on a variety of subjects, most not explicitly connected to religion. As one might expect from a show in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood — home to many of the city’s cultural trendsetters — the works are self-conscious and analytical (often humorously so), breaking down conventional wisdom and clichés.

The exhibit’s organizers suggest that’s their aim in a written introduction, which wryly notes there’s “no ethnic group that hasn’t been neatly encapsulated… There’s nobody left to survey, and nowhere left to do it.” As a consequence, they feel free to turn their attention inward — back to New York Jews and “their natural habitats,” here defined as Chelsea and the Lower East Side. (The inclusion of Chelsea rather than, say, the Upper West Side or much of Brooklyn may raise eyebrows, but might be the case as it relates to the Jewish art scene.)

As in the neighborhood where it’s displayed, few religious figures appear in “Jew York,” with the Orthodox visible only in images near the entrance. In Michael Portnoy’s three-part series of oil paintings, a bearded Hasid stares judgmentally through the gap left by a door that’s left slightly ajar, perhaps reminding viewers of the traditions they’re not about to see inside. (Even in the case of the Hasidic man, the New York melting pot has exerted its influence — in one shot he’s holding a football, although viewers will have to determine the meaning behind the fact that it’s deflated.)

Leon Golub Combat, 1961 Acrylic on linen (photo credit: courtesy)
Leon Golub
Combat, 1961
Acrylic on linen
(photo credit: courtesy)

Once inside the two showrooms, it gets harder to extract a clear meaning from the eclectic mix of styles and statements. The show’s only biblical reference — the Peter Halley painting “Jacob Wrestling the Angel” — is in fact a distorted Rubik’s cube, or perhaps a multi-colored diamond, surrounded by black on three sides. Elsewhere, Keith Myerson uses oil on linen to re-imagine an iconic black-and-white photo of Anne Frank seated, pen in hand, at a writing desk.

Pushing boundaries of another kind, Nicolas Guagini offers a trio of ceramic sculptures that entwine two parts of the body widely associated with Jews: noses and circumcised penises. Visitors with an appreciation for phallic humor will likely suppress a giggle over the two entitled “Hard of Hearing.”

Perhaps inevitably, Jewish matriarchs make a couple cameos, first in Hannah Wilke’s “My Mother (Such a Smart Woman),” a black-and-white photo print accompanied with an affectionate 14-line poem.

Mom is also a topic in one of the show’s most original pieces, Ilene Segalove’s “Whatever Happened to My Future?” The 11-minute video, created last year, features the middle-age artist in conversation with an actress playing her when she was 40 years younger, updating her junior counterpart about how life has worked out and explaining what the world looks like in the future. (After describing e-mail and opining about whether “women’s lib” worked, she reports drily, “Corn is now made of plastic.”)

Hannah Wilke My Mother (Such a Smart Woman), 1978-83 Unique black and white print (photo credit: Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York)
Hannah Wilke
My Mother (Such a Smart Woman), 1978-83
Unique black and white print
(photo credit: Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York)

Purely in visual terms, the most inventive piece in “Jew York” may be Dustin Yellin’s “Psycho Geography” — what appears from the front and back to be a human body composed of tiny cutouts of photos, logos and other images. Seen from the side, Yellin’s technique becomes clear: the artist arrays the cutouts between sheets of glass, stacking the different layers of the “body” to form an eye-catching whole. After examining how the piece has been constructed, viewers will likely find themselves scrutinizing the hundreds of small images that make up the piece, a wide-ranging mix of historical photos, kitschy Americana and other cultural detritus.

Careful observers may notice an Israeli flag on the figure’s left calf, but they’ll likely struggle to attach a larger “Jewish” significance to the overall work.

The same is true of “Jew York” in general, and of the city and people that inspired it. They’re too rich, too varied, to encapsulate in a single show.

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