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Sukkahs become ‘Artful Dwellings’ in a holiday exhibit at the Skirball

by Robert David Jaffee

September 27, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Wearing matching light-green pants and jacket and a white hat, Marlene Zimmerman sits on one of the wooden benches of "Joyful Visions: An American Sukkah," her installation currently on view at the Skirball Cultural Center. The artist looks contemplative and at peace under 100-year-old hanging vines that wind through the pergola at the top of her design; such a tranquil setting seems appropriate for a show timed to the seasonal harvest holiday.

Zimmerman's installation is one of three works from the Skirball's permanent collection on view in the exhibition "Artful Dwellings: Sukkot at the Skirball." The other two are by artists Sam Erenberg and Therman Statom. All of these environmental works were first exhibited by the Skirball 10 years ago, and they invite the viewer to walk inside, meditate and, in the case of the works of Erenberg and Zimmerman, sit down.

Within Zimmerman's wood structure, which has open windows above the two benches, scenes of sukkot are painted on the wall against a light-blue backdrop. Based on photographs culled from Internet correspondence and cold calls across the country, Zimmerman depicts sukkot from every state in the union.

Like the miniaturized versions of synagogues from around the world on display at the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv, Zimmerman's art provides, as she says, "a Jewish geography lesson."

One noteworthy scene is that of the St. Paul, Minn., sukkah shaped like a yurt. The community "consulted the rabbi, and it met every specification," Zimmerman says.

Known for her work as a folk artist, Zimmerman captures images of Jews not only from northern climes but also from the South and West, such as the Jewish community of Honolulu, where American servicemen from World War II took part in the harvest festival, and the "Delta Jews" of Mississippi, where documentary filmmaker Mike DeWitt is seen next to a sukkah covered with wisteria.

As one might imagine based on the title of the piece, Erenberg's "Tabernacle" suggests the temporary structure of a nomadic people. The work's minimalist interior includes a water basin, used for purification in biblical days, while the exterior looks a bit like a Rubix Cube, except with an opening between two of the panels. It reminds us of the sacred tent that our forebears built while wandering in the desert when they did not have the ability to build a permanent temple.

That is not to say that Erenberg's work is incomplete. Viewed from right to left, as if one is reading Hebrew, it tells the complete story of creation on the exterior mural, with whorls of dark blue paint on the extreme right representing the time before Genesis. Erenberg's next panel is painted in a fiery red, giving the impression of an explosion, perhaps like the Big Bang.

Next we see a tree, with a triangular opening at its middle. The tree flowers in spite of the cutout, but the abrupt presence of the triangle, half of a Star of David, conveys the importance of persistence in the face of adversity. Growth, Erenberg seems to say, can be halted if we are not persistent, if we allow the yield signs to block the way to fulfillment.

Statom's installation may be the most avant-garde. A glass artist who frequently uses the form of the house, according to Skirball senior curator Grace Cohen Grossman, Statom has created a glass structure marked up with graffiti, as if it were a canvas. Some of the scrawl is legible, including the names of various Jewish patriarchs --Abraham, Isaac and Jacob -- as well as female icon Esther. Other scribblings can not be discerned, but one can make out a sketch of the State of Israel.

Statom's outline of the Jewish nation is truncated, so that the northern half lies on one piece of glass, the southern half on another. Although the demarcations do not correspond with the Palestinian territories, Statom is clearly noting the division of the country, if not the broken nature of the peace process.

Statom, who is not Jewish, also includes blown glass and drawings of various fruits, such as grapes and pears, and places candles and candlestick holders on top of the sculpture. And in what Grossman terms a touch of "whimsicality," he suspends leaves made of aluminum above the sukkah.

Like the dreams of the Israelites in the desert, the leaves seem to undulate and float to the top of the high-ceilinged space, or to the heavens.

"Artful Dwellings: Sukkot at the Skirball" runs through Nov. 11. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., (310) 440-4500. http://www.skirball.org. Tracker Pixel for Entry

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