Divided between the USC and UCLA campuses, the latest art exhibition by the Jewish Artist Initiative (JAI), titled, "Makor/Source," taps into the wellspring of Jewish life.
How fitting that Ruth Weisberg, USC dean of fine arts, would include her water-themed, mixed-media drawing, "Bound for Nowhere." As a succession of hunched-over immigrant Jews board a boat headed back to Europe, the vessel, with its portholes and cables strewn like seaweed, appears to be a submarine. It is as if these passengers, who carry their belongings, ascend a gangway into an underwater graveyard.
Alternately, Weisberg, whose drawing features a muted brown or ocher color scheme, suggests that the immigrants may be "undergoing a sea change," a salutary transmutation as they board the ship. She notes that the Jews in the drawing, though denied a visa to Palestine, ultimately may have been admitted to Israel after the country's founding, the makor or source of a whole new chapter in the history of the Jewish people.
Barbara Drucker, UCLA art department chair, also contributed a work to the show, "Breadbox Stack No. 1," in which seven bread boxes are tiered into a ramshackle, yet sturdy, tower. Is it a Tower of Babel surging at peril toward the heavens? Or is it, as Drucker proposes, an image both of life, as symbolized by the bread, and death, since modern-day Greeks use such boxes to store bones?
Drucker works from instinct. She did not set out to create something with a Jewish theme, but the bread boxes date from the 1920s and '30s and recall the heyday of immigrant and first-generation Jews living in neighborhoods like Boyle Heights and the Lower East Side, yet another seminal moment in Jewish history.
JAI, which Weisberg calls the "brainchild" of the Jewish Community Foundation and USC's Casden Institute, was formed, she said, to "act as a galvanizing force" for bringing Jewish culture to the community.
"Makor/Source" marks the first time that the Hillels of the two universities have collaborated on an exhibition. Roughly 20 local artists submitted works to the show, including collages, paintings and photographs.
Because the exhibition is based on a study of Jewish text, one of the most salient pieces is Joyce Dallal's "Promises Made in a Language I Don't Understand," an ink-jet print of pieces of paper bunched into a ball. The image of crumpled paper might or might not refer to the Hebrew Bible. It's hard to say, so indecipherable are the runes, yet the scraps, involuted as they are, do resemble a Torah being unscrolled.
Even if Hebrew, like all Indo-European tongues, comes from an original source, the endless permutations can create language barriers that are palpable, if less severe to the artist than humanity's failings or God's.
"Makor/Source" is at USC Hillel, 3300 S. Hoover St., (213) 747-9135, ext. 14. Opening reception is Sunday, Jan. 22, 3-5 p.m. "Makor/Source" is also at UCLA Hillel, 574 Hilgard Ave., (310) 208-3081. Both exhibits run through March 3.