Creating an art exhibit that captures the complexity of changes in how gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex people are viewed is no small challenge. Especially when it is displayed at a rabbinical seminary, where there is a stricter definition of what is considered appropriate than there would be at, say, a Cheslea gallery. But the work exhibited in the new show “The Sexuality Spectrum,” at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform movement seminary that lies on the seam between Manhattan’s East and West Village, manages to do just that.
The show contains art and artifacts — from paintings to installations, photographs, fiber art and ephemera — that reflect the way sexuality has been viewed in American culture. Most of the works focus on the “otherness” of LBTQI people within the Jewish community, in Jewish texts and traditions, and in the overall culture. The show includes work by prominent artists Mark Podwal, Archie Rand and Joan Snyder, and by Judy Chicago, whose “Pansy Crucifixion” shows three men, in agony, trapped inside a pink triangle. “Pansy Crucifixion” has been borrowed from Chicago’s “The Holocaust Project.” Most of the artists included, however, are not as well known. With this exhibit, “we wanted to address exclusion, isolation, rejection, marginalization, parents who rejected their children who had AIDS and sat shiva when they came out,” said Laura Kruger, curator of the HUC-JIR museum in an interview with the Forward.
The idea for “The Sexuality Spectrum” was born of Kruger’s anger at conservative reaction to New York State’s passage into law in June 2011 of the Marriage Equality Act, she said. Kruger is older than 70 (but demurred to say how many years past) and long married. “The innate fear and loathing that has been inherent in the subject of other-than-heterosexual behavior has been a puzzle to me all my life,” she said.
Despite its name, the show doesn’t really address the whole spectrum of sexuality — there are few reflections on the experience of being in a male-female couple — but of course the queer experience is rich for artistic mining, and some of the works are extremely powerful. Albert Winn’s 1995 photograph “Akedah,” for example, shows a man’s chest and upper arm, wrapped in the dark leather straps of his tefillin. In the tender inner crook of the man’s elbow is a bloodied first-aid bandage You immediately understand that this is where an intravenous line has infused him with anti-HIV medication, and that he feels as vulnerable as Isaac must have when bound by his father to the biblical altar.
Another is Susan Kaplow’s “Abomination: Wrestling With Leviticus 18:22,” which works with the verse that is traditionally read on Yom Kippur afternoon as well as during the regular Sabbath cycle of Torah readings, prohibiting men from lying with men as they would women. On traditional Jewish burial garments — tachrichim — the artist has printed, in large scale, the page of the Babylonian Talmud in which the rabbis discuss the verse.