The Jewish art scene in Los Angeles is a small but vibrant community that spans generations, styles, and the full length and breadth of the city itself. Now, for the first time, three of L.A.’s preeminent Jewish institutions — Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), University of Southern California Hillel and American Jewish University (AJU) — have teamed up to produce a collaborative exhibition that stretches across three venues and features more than a dozen local artists.
“Sacred Words, Sacred Texts,” which officially opened Oct. 6 with a reception at AJU, is an exhibition that celebrates Jews as a People of the Book: Torah, Talmud, Midrash and sacred poetry are all explored through various media by more than a dozen Jewish artists from the L.A. area. It was curated by Anne Hromadka, Sara Cannon and Georgia Freedman-Harvey.
A second reception — this time beginning at HUC-JIR and spilling over to the nearby USC Hillel — took place on Oct. 13, featuring a wide range of styles and forms, from a very traditional, literal sculpted Torah by Soraya Sarah Nazarian, to Will Deutsch’s instantly recognizable drawings, to a video installation by Jessica Shokrian featuring accompanying spices that guests were invited to sniff in a sort of avant garde Smell-O-Vision.
Hromadka said that one of her main motivations for the exhibition was to ask the question, “How are Jewish artists thinking of ourselves as keepers of the book?”
She continued: “In thinking of ‘Sacred Words,’ I wanted to think about not just the words that we speak to each other, but what are some of the holiest words ever spoken in our tradition? And those are often the words spoken from God to us.”
Hromadka highlighted the work of artist Andi Arnovitz, a beautifully constructed sculpture made of Hebrew text featuring colorful flourishes that depict the battle between the houses of Hillel and Shammai, the circa first century BCE rabbis whose heated debates helped shape much of religious Jewish law and custom.
“The scrolls that make up the house are actually copies of pages from the Talmud,” Hromadka said.
She also spoke about a piece by Iranian artist Krista Nassi, who immigrated to the United States in 2006 after living in Iran post-revolution. The piece, a bold painting featuring sharp contrasts between darkness and light, and the text of the Shema, was apparently a personal one for Nassi.
“She lived in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war,” Hromadka said. “Whenever there was shelling ... her family would gather in one space in the house ... and they would huddle. And what were the words they would say to comfort themselves? The Shema.”
Among those in attendance were participating artists Melinda Smith Altshuler and Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik. Altshuler, speaking briefly, highlighted her use of found objects in her work, which she credited to her father being in the scrap metal business when she grew up. He’d bring home “wonders” that she couldn’t help but love. Altshuler described her work, which included a piece that made use of old record sleeves, as being “like the anti-text, because they really have to do with addressing recording, which is what the written word is also, but with visual materials.”
Brynjegard-Bialik went into more depth about what the concept behind “Sacred Words, Sacred Texts” means to him.
“What I’m trying to do is tell stories,” he said. “I’m very much into our narratives, our stories as a people. Most of my work is informed by biblical stories. And I always say my work starts with text. Maybe it’s a portion from the Bible, maybe it’s something from Talmud, maybe it’s a myth, as with the golem story.”
Brynjegard-Bialik’s beautiful pieces, which weave in images from comic books to create mythic takes on Torah and the Jewish experience, breathe new life into the often tired art of paper cutting.
“It’s all about revisiting these texts, revisiting these stories, revisiting those things that inform us as a people, and trying to make sense of them,” he said. “The text becomes ours to own and to struggle with. What I try and do is put that struggle on the page.”
At USC Hillel, a jazz quartet played while guests, most of whom made the short walk from HUC, looked at more work by Brynjegard-Bialik, along with Hillel-specific artists like the appropriately named Hillel Smith and Carol Es.
This display has more of a youth-oriented feel, between the comic book-influenced work of Brynjegard-Bialik, Smith’s selections — which ranged from a pop art T-shirt to colorful abstract prints — and Es’ warped, trippy paintings.
Among the artists represented at AJU are Corrie Siegel, whose map of Los Angeles was used as the artwork for the exhibition’s poster, and philanthropist Peachy Levy, whose generous gifts to many Jewish institutions, particularly camps, have helped fund arts programming for countless children over the years.
Whichever location art lovers visit, they are guaranteed to see a wide cross-section of Jewish art from Los Angeles, a collection that fittingly captures the many artistic voices that make up our community, and asks powerful questions. The exhibition at all three institutions will continue through mid-December.