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Jewish Journal

Towering “Inferno”

by Michael Aushenker

December 16, 1999 | 7:00 pm

"E come i stornei ne porta l'ali nel freddo &'009;&'009;tempo,

a schiena larga a piena,

Cosi quel fato li spiriti mali,

di qua, di la, di giu, di su li mena,

nulla speranza li comforta mai,

non che di posa, ma di minor pence.

E come i gru van catando lor lai,

faccendo in aere dise lunga riga,

Cosi vid io venir, traendo guai,

ombre portate da la detta briga."

-- Canto V of Dante's "Inferno"

It was a postcard-perfect Pasadena day on the beautiful grounds of the Huntington Library when Ronald E. Steen led 16 women on a descent into Hell.

Well, sort of...

Steen, of Steen Art Study, was conducting a tour at the Huntington's Virginia Steele Scott Gallery, currently home to Ruth Weisberg's "Canto V: A Whirlwind of Lovers," an exhibit of paintings and prints inspired by English artist William Blake's etchings of Dante's "Inferno," circa 1827. And in attendance that day was the artist herself, personally providing context to her show for Steen's group.

As Weisberg later told the Journal, "With Dante being Catholic and William Blake being Protestant, there was an emphasis on sin, which didn't interest me. One measures oneself by similarities as well as differences, and I am interested in the idea of eternity, which relates to Jewish concepts of the world to come. I'm also interested in the concept of redemption, which in Judaism means remembering or memorializing, and that's something I do constantly as an artist."

Adds Steen, "She uses emulation to put us in contact with traditional art but updates it for modern society at the end of the 20th century."

In "Canto V: A Whirlwind of Lovers," isolated human figures writhe in a purgatory of desire and torment almost as gnarled and twisted as the bedsheets that tangle around them. The central piece, the massive 12 x 23 ft. "Eternity of Unfulfillment," follows a progression of two figures -- a man and a woman -- swirling into a vortex, like a downward spiral into hell. As she told her gallery audience, Weisberg attempted to portray a "tenderness and disappointment" with her soft washes, employing an elegant use of gesso to simultaneously enunciate the bodies and emote body heat.

As with 1994's "Sisters and Brothers" -- a 14 x 18 ft. canvas derived from Torah stories of Jacob, Esau, Leah and Rachel -- Weisberg aims with "Canto V" to envelop the view with the physical grandeur of her installation.

Weisberg did not hesitate to use her son and his girlfriend as nude models for the central canvas of "Canto."

"My children and people close to me are very used to being asked to pose. I like to draw the people who are dear to me. It isn't awkward. My son has been posing for me all his life and my daughter as well," says Weisberg, who stood up on a ladder above the figures to capture the vertiginous view she capitalizes on in her compositions.

Schooled at the prestigious Chicago Art Institute and the University of Michigan, Weisberg says that her parents were "extremely supportive" of her artistic ambitions. Her parents socialized with many artists, as her father was a prominent architect. And, in keeping with the family lineage, Weisberg's own children are pursuing creative careers -- her son a musician and filmmaker; her daughter an art history Ph.D. candidate.

"I've been involved in my Jewish identity over a long period of time," says Weisberg, who also relishes her role as Dean of Fine Arts at USC. She is now entering her fifth year working with up-and-coming artists.

"The arts are being very much promoted and supported. We have a wonderful president [Steven Sample] and provost [Lloyd Armstrong] at the University," says Weisberg. "The students are very interested in issues of identity and values. They're very stimulated and interested in traditional and digital media."

The work displayed in the "Canto" exhibit is an extension of her love of Dante's Inferno, an affinity she developed as a young woman in Italy, where she studied art and Italian. Some prints, like "Leviathan," are one-off monotypes -- a format merging printmaking and painting techniques -- executed during a week's stay in Fairbanks, Alaska, where she was keynote speaker at an art educators conference. These images display the influence of her visit, with the drapery slithering around the figures easily doubling as a glacial Alaskan mountain range ("Sort of an aurora borealis effect," says the monotypes creator).

Other figure renderings, like the black-grounded "Tempest" and "Above/Below," convey a sweltering, primordial light source through pastel highlights to echo themes of anguished desire.

At the moment, Weisberg -- represented in Los Angeles by Jack Rutberg Fine Arts -- is looking forward to one of her upcoming commissions: producing artwork for an embellished version of the 1 million selling, Leonard Baskin-illustrated haggadah, produced 25-years-ago by the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

"It's going to mean a lot of studies of haggadahs and talking to people about what their seders mean to them. That's going to be an immense privilege; it's going to be wonderful," says Weisberg.

So what parallels does the artist find in Dante's writing and in her own life? Weisberg would rather leave that to the viewer's imagination. But she does say, "I used the stories to mediate things that are more personal. I think artists often use metaphors and analogies for something close to their hearts. I certainly do."

Ruth Weisberg's "Canto V: A Whirlwind of Lovers" will be on display at the Huntington Library through Jan. 30. For more information, call (626) 405-2141; or visit www.huntington.org.

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