The journey to paradise is not without its optical illusions. What is enchanting can be hollow, what seems trite may be the doorway to magnificence, and what does not appear worth understanding could contain all of the answers. When engaged in an active dialogue with the world, what was an arid wasteland can become a beautiful oasis.
Such are the intellectual, cultural, and philosophical issues addressed in the eclectic works at the LABALMA PaRDeS Exhibition at New York’s 14th Street Y, which features a range of artistic media including photography, painting, video, and drawing. The exhibit is a collaboration between LABA, a Jewish house of cultural study in New York City whose central mission is to re-examine ancient texts through modern interpretation, and the Alma Home for Hebrew Culture in Tel Aviv. This past year the topic for study was pardes, or paradise, and served as the joint theme for artists in both New York City and Israel.
In the exhibit, Israeli artist Dalia Gottlieb explores a continuum of chaos in her photograph “Taxidermes,” which features a white table covered with lifeless, stuffed animals, ancient tribal masks, heads of statues, and decapitated mannequins and dolls. Blocks of wood, plastic tarps, and a woven basket sit under the table, with a disarray of colorful tissue paper in the corner. Gottleib addresses death in relation to the individual, emphasizing the most expressive and distinguishing facet of the body, while invoking a long passage of time with the collection of ancient and modern artifacts.
Gottlieb transposes similar thematic elements in her photograph, “East Jerusalem,” which displays sloping ice-capped mountains overlooking brownish-green pastures. Pastoral meets contemporary as a whimsical footbridge arched over glittering water is encroached upon by a shadowy, blurred figure imposing itself over a vine of crisply defined white roses.
Aviv Naveh’s “Untitled (Lake)” is the most literal interpretation of paradise with its verdant, plush forest and rich soil, bordering a clear, blue lake. Young, robust individuals lounge about dreamily in bathing suits.
In blazing contrast to the tranquil, merry atmosphere of Naveh’s piece, Liz Hajaj’s painting “In Place” is a morbid portrayal of a distorted figure, and calls to mind what might have been produced if Picasso had gone through a Gothic period. The figure is mostly of red, black, and white, with traces of yellow and gold, and possesses androgynous qualities. The struggle between two conflicting identities is evident in the distended breasts, a phallic shape emerging from the flat chest, and an outline of breasts smeared across the top half of the face, which wears an eerie grin, matched with a pair of vacant eyes. The mysterious smile paired with an unrevealing stare echoes the ambiguity and tension in the rest of the piece.
LABALMA’s inventive approach to classical, literary traditions allows artists to draw inspiration from authentic Judaic history without hindering their contemporary visions. By exploring ancient wisdom in unconventional settings, they can enrich both worlds, even if they are not utopian.