The Disturbing Art of Enlightenment

Go past the bright paper packages of unleavened bread and jars of kosher delicacies. Step around the vinyl-covered chairs area and the postcard carousel.

Now stand and look at what humans have wrought.

In the sculptures and paintings is pain, screaming defiance, mute testimony to the dark underbelly of our species.

There on the back wall are two of the best examples of our darker truths, both on large canvases. One is directly to the point: A garish flaming ball of a sun setting on hills of Holocaust victims. The other is a simple scene at a gas station window--the multiracial group oozing tension.

This is what we have created: racial tension, genocide, homelessness. And we have also created art, in part to attempt understanding of the horrors of our world. A good example of this kind of artwork, which addresses themes most of us would prefer to ignore, can be seen at the Long Beach Jewish Community Center's juried exhibition: "Art for Social Justice."

This is not a "Starving Artists" warehouse blowout sale.

"Most of these pieces are for sale, but we don't expect to sell them," Lynne Rosenstein said. "This is not living-room art."

Indeed. It is difficult to imagine the prize-winning canvas "Poland I" by Shoshana Ernst hanging above a couch. The giant sun setting on hills of corpses in this mixed-media work is garish and difficult to look at. The bodies seem to move in their mass graves.

Hanging next to Poland I is "Chevron Cashier '92," a much subtler piece that changes meaning with the visitor's point of view. The painting by Jiri Mesicki shows a fairly common scene: A white man outside a service station cashier's window, looking at three black teen-agers standing alongside him, all under the watchful eye of a man of indeterminate race behind shatter-proof glass at the cash register.

Isn't that cashier giving the teen-agers a dirty, distrustful look? Why does the white man--a self-portrait of the artist--have such an open, curious expression? And the kids, why are their shoulders hunched, as if in fear?

The questions, the necessary self-examination, brought on by Mesicki's piece makes it even more disturbing, in many ways, than Ernst's. In one painting, you look into the horror of history. In another, you look into the eyes of a young black girl whose apprehension during a seemingly harmless scene tells volumes about what our society continues to perpetrate daily.

Other items: A glass window covered in hateful graffiti; a painting of children plastered in newspaper clippings of sexual abuse; a bronze sphere of interconnected bodies.

To go to this exhibit with an open mind is to be torn by loss and injustice. To go with a closed mind would be a waste of time.

The biannual "Art for Social Justice" exhibit is open until April 9 at the Jewish Community Center, 3801 E. Willow St. at Grand Avenue in Long Beach. Admission is free. Information: (310) 426-7601.

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