"I avoid cliches," artist Mark Podwal said of his "A Sweet Year" exhibit.
His witty, poetic new show at the Skirball Cultural Center, subtitled "A Taste of the Jewish Holidays," instead offers food for thought. &'9;
"Rosh Hashana" depicts a Torah topped by colossal crimson rimonim, or ornaments ("rimon" also means pomegranate, a traditional sweet new year food). A Passover piece presents Pharaoh's face as a horseradish, not just because slavery was bitter but because Midrash describes Pharaoh as bitter.
"Hanukkah" features pink dreidels blossoming from an olive branch, suggesting the oil that miraculously burned for eight days and nights.
Every picture tells more than a story: "Podwal is very interested in his work as visual Midrash," said Nancy Berman, the Skirball's museum director emeritus. "It's Jewish learning through the medium of art," associate curator Tal Gozani said.
In a phone interview from Manhattan, the 59-year-old artist recalled that his studious approach began early. At 12, he said, an inspiring Jewish camp experience led him to transfer from a Yiddish shul to a Conservative Hebrew school. As an artist, he's often immersed himself in research to illustrate works by authors such as Eli Wiesel or to complete drawings for The New York Times.
To create "A Sweet Year," which is also a 2003 children's book (Doubleday, $12.95) he read up on ritual and legends linking the sacred and the scrumptious.
An I. B. Singer story informs his Sukkot image, a fruity solar system in the night sky. A gargantuan slice of cheesecake represents Mount Sinai for the dairy-heavy Shavuot.
Eastern European challah designs inspired the painting that most stumped Podwal: the one for the fast day, Yom Kippur. "Before the fast begins, challah, the bread for holidays, is eaten," his accompanying text states. "Instead of being braided, as for the Sabbath, it is made into special shapes. A ladder made of bread helps prayers reach heaven. A bread key opens heaven's gate."
For Podwal, the key was finding imaginative ways to transmit Judaism: "I invent juxtapositions that create an element of surprise, which is how to escape clichés," he said.
The show runs Aug. 18-Oct. 31 at the Skirball's Ruby Gallery. Podwal will lead a children's art workshop and an artist's talk on Oct. 3. For more information, call (310) 440-4500.