Art that’s made principally to correct the stereotypes promulgated by popular culture is rarely of more than passing interest. When this kind of art occupies the central position in a thematic exhibition, as it does in “Too Jewish? Challenging Traditional Identities,” the show suffers a big setback.
“Too Jewish?,” which opened Tuesday at the UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum of Art, was organized last March by the Jewish Museum in New York. It means to explore, in the context of recent ethnic and identity politics, questions of Jewish identity and its representation in mainstream American life.
And it does, albeit to little significant effect.
Three dozen paintings, sculptures and installations by 18 American artists have been brought together (six videotapes by five other artists are being shown in a separate gallery at the end of the show). Also, a selection of three Barbie dolls is on display, as evidence of both an ostensibly prevailing standard of beauty in the American mind and an internalized sense of conflict within traditional concepts of identity: The designer of the blond, pert-nosed, impossibly wasp-waisted doll was Ruth Handler, daughter of Polish Jewish immigrants.
Humor is frequently encountered in the show--nowhere more than in Rhonda Lieberman’s small white artificial Christmas tree. This cheesy holiday symbol, which is a suburban American descendant of a German Christian tradition, is here gaily adorned with glittery blue Stars of David, each hung from a branch by a gold bracelet and bearing a photographic portrait of Barbra Streisand. Made in 1994 for the window of Barney’s clothing store in New York, Lieberman’s hybrid Hanukkah/Christmas tree is giddily titled “Barbra Bush.”
The assemblage sculpture is very funny, ricocheting as it does around any number of vulgar stereotypes about the manifold collisions between secular mores and contemporary religions. Finally, though, it doesn’t engage anything that isn’t already common knowledge. The sculpture is a sight gag--clever prop-comedy of the kind you in fact already see in hip department store windows.
Streisand also shows up in silk screen paintings by Deborah Kass, paintings that mimic Andy Warhol’s numerous society portraits and his silver images of Elvis. Here, the rock ‘n’ roller’s gunslinger pose is replaced with the diva’s cross-dressing Yentl.
Another famous Warhol painting--this one derived from a before-and-after advertisement for plastic surgery, in which a prominently hooked nose on the left is paired with a bobbed nose on the right--is distantly evoked by Adam Rolston in three pencil drawings that clinically describe the gruesomely invasive surgical procedure. Rolston’s blunt drawings--like his big, neo-Pop paintings of the labels of boxes of Manischewitz American matzos, which I suppose might go well with a steaming bowl of Campbell’s soup--are typical of the show’s preoccupation with pop culture imagery.
In fact, the show is divided into three sections, two of which follow this pop lead. Most of the galleries feature art that questions stereotypes of the Jewish body (introduced by grinning Barbie) or interrogate the depiction of Jews in various media venues (advertising, television, movies, etc.).
Despite its subtitle, in other words, most of “Too Jewish?” doesn’t really challenge traditional identities at all. What it challenges instead is the imagery of popular culture.
The exhibition seems convinced that popular art is the enemy. It also promotes a vision of fine art as a method by which one group of artists corrects the perceived errors of another, less enlightened, group of artists. Upheld is a thoroughly academic, institutionally conservative doctrine of art as cultural critique.
That’s what makes this exhibition--and most identity shows like it--so piously dull. Art isn’t about being right.
The principal exception to the show’s anti-pop culture rule will be found in its final section, which explores the relevance of traditional Jewish rituals to contemporary life. The most compelling work here is an installation by Helene Aylon that actually does challenge traditional identities.
Aylon’s “The Liberation of G-d” incorporates Hebrew Bibles whose pages are overlaid with translucent parchment, on which the artist has highlighted textual passages that either assert patriarchal authority or exclude women. Aylon, raised an Orthodox Jew, here assumes the traditionally male role of Torah student and scholar--a role she has expanded by formally inviting numerous area rabbis to visit the exhibition and engage in a dialogue with her about her work of art.
Aylon’s feminist confrontation with the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible that together form a basic foundation of Judeo-Christian thought, might be seen as an effort to correct established errors. What sets her work apart from most of the critique-driven others in the show, however, is its simultaneous embrace of worldly experience and tradition.
On the day I saw the show, the artist and a rabbi were seated at a table in the gallery, engaged in lively discussion, concurrence and disagreement about Judaism, feminism, art and who knows what else.
As Jewish Museum curator Norman L. Kleeblatt notes in the exhibition’s catalog (which, incidentally, includes significant essays by Linda Nochlin, Tony Kushner and several others), Aylon’s installation actively partakes of the Rabbinic tradition of Midrash: rereading, questioning and reinterpreting the Bible, thereby ensuring its relevance to contemporary life.
As I watched the exchange, I couldn’t help being struck by the memory of the museum’s namesake, the late industrialist Armand Hammer, who for most of his shabby life denied his own Jewish heritage while gleefully pursuing power and profit. In the halls of Hammer’s museum, Aylon’s extemporaneous Midrash, both passionate and respectful, made for the show’s strongest and most eloquent image.
* UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., (310) 443-7000, through March 23. Closed Mondays.