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Jewish Journal

Skirball’s ‘Temporary Quarters’

by Naomi Pfefferman

September 11, 1997 | 8:00 pm

Therman Statom, one of this country's pre-eminent experimentalglass artists, was perched atop a ladder beside hisprecarious-looking installation at the Skirball Cultural Center.

 

Study for Sam Erenberg's "tabernacle," 1985.A study for"tabernacle," by Sam Erenberg, originally commissioned by theSkirball 12 years ago.

 

Renowned for his temporary houses of glass, the stocky, downtownartist has constructed, of all things, a sukkah for the Skirball'sSukkot exhibit, "Temporary Quarters."

The sukkah is not such a leap for the African-American artist.Having barely escaped death three times (twice by nearly drowning),Statom has been fascinated by the concept of temporary quarters, ofprecariousness, of life on the edge. He has built glass rooms that hehas subsequently destroyed. The Skirball piece, too, consists ofglass boxes -- rectangles of varying sizes -- siliconed together.

As usual, he has scribbled and painted all over the transparentwalls, expressing his desire to "paint in air," to express thespiritual, the intangible. Here, the vibrant paintings depict harvestfruits, and the scribbling reflects the artist's musings about"moving out of Egypt."

"As an African-American, my history doesn't go beyond mygreat-grandfather," says Statom, who researched Sukkot by pullingevery book he could find on the subject in the public library. "So,in a way, this piece has helped connect me to a larger, more fluidhistory."

"Temporary Quarters: Artists Build for Shelter and Celebration"also includes two more sukkot installations, the work of two verydifferent local artists.

Marlene Zimmerman is a folk artist whose style is reminiscent ofthe 19th century but whose process is contemporary. Earlier thisyear, she put out the call over the Internet for photographs andstories of diverse sukkot from around the country; she receiveddozens of responses. In her direct, crude, naïve style, she thenpainted some 75 of the scenarios, like a patchwork quilt, on the backof a simple, stained-pine sukkah. The scenes range from the "FrozenChosen" of Fairbanks, Alaska, to the Chabad "Mitzva-mobile" of LosAngeles.

Sam Erenberg's piece was commissioned by the Skirball 12 yearsago, after his exploration of Eastern spiritual practices led him, atlast, back to Judaism. The installation is therefore a hybrid ofJewish and Eastern styles: It looks something like a Japanese teahouse, with lush, Chinese-style landscape paintings and a meditative,serene air. Yet the exterior panels depict an abstract version of thestory of creation found in the book of Genesis.

The saga is told from right to left, as one reads Hebrew: Theblack void gives way to swirling gray and blues mists and then to thecrimson of the new molten Earth; there is a Tree of Life in silver,relating to the fertility of the Sukkot harvest holiday; and thereare horizontal red lines that symbolize the Jewish Diaspora.

The symbolism notwithstanding, a visitor couldn't help but noticethat the "Temporary Quarters" sukkot were located indoors, makingthem moot, Jewishly speaking. The exhibit's curator, Monica Billet,was quick with a response: "We did not intend the pieces to behalachacally correct," she says. "We intended them to be artinstallations based on the concept of the sukkah."

"Temporary Quarters" is augmented by related workshops; aninteractive installation; a family Sukkot festival on Oct. 19; and aperformance on Nov. 8 and 9, "Living in Temporary Quarters," by LosAngeles Poverty Department, a renowned troupe of homeless orpreviously homeless artists. For more information, call (310)440-4500.

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