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.
Photographer Trix Rosen has documented Kaplow wearing the tachrichim, which consist of pants, undershirt, kittle, bonnet and face covering, all printed with the Talmud’s rabbinic conversation. Two large photographs, powerful as artistic midrash, show an anonymous body inside the burial garments, writhing in what appears to be grief; from the back curled in the fetal position. They suggest pictures of a tortured prisoner.
“As soon as I had the garments on, I began to feel all sorts of emotions. I felt trapped and claustrophobic, scared, angry and sad,” Kaplow, who is a lesbian, said in an interview with the Forward. “Those feelings started to show through in the photographs. My body and inside those words started to feel like those words are all over my body — toevah, toevah, toevah [abomination, abomination, abomination]. It’s like my body is the proof text for the damage these words have done, and are still doing, to many people. This part of the tradition makes me feel not only dead, but dead and buried. There’s an invisibility, [a feeling that] you’re not even here, you’re not really part of us.”
A weak aspect of the show is how it is laid out. There is no natural flow or guidance to help the viewer understand the works, which are hung in no obvious order in HUC-JIR’s large lobby and in a few smaller galleries off to one side. Art is exhibited alongside such cultural artifacts as movie theater display cards from Barbra Streisand ‘s 1983 film “Yentl” a Keith Haring sweatshirt from an AIDS dance-a-thon and paper fans produced for Pride Week 2007 at the Church of St. Luke in the Fields showing a photo of two men’s hands clasped together.
There are enlarged snapshots of gay-liberation graffiti in Jerusalem, taken by Heddy Abramowitz, and one by Michael Harwood of a Midtown Manhattan street corner, showing the famous Mark Wahlberg underwear ad for Calvin Klein juxtaposed against a “No left turn” sign. But art is more than observation, and the strongest works combine insight with an understanding of Jewish texts and traditions.
Jacqueline Nicholls’s paper-cut doilies look like the kind that grandmothers used to line platters. But hers feature language from Gemara, specifically Rabbi Yochanan’s projection of an anonymous maiden’s prayer that she not cause men to sin. The words are bordered by evocative images of nude — but shamed — women, all of them delicately teased from plain sheets of paper. Nicholls’s beautiful work is midrash married to commentary on contemporary culture.
David Wander’s “Song of Songs” is another work that is compelling both artistically and Jewishly. The 20 foot-long unfurled scroll is a dreamlike amalgam of visual allusions to the text, which is laid over the imagery. Also worth noting is the show’s catalog, which is an educational piece as much as it is a guide to the work on display. It includes eight essays, by Reform movement scholars and a current rabbinical school student, on the evolution in approaches to inclusion of gay and lesbian members of the Reform movement. One is by Rabbi Rachel Adler on ways to understand the Leviticus prohibitions.
It is a curious moment for a show like “The Sexuality Spectrum.” To live in New York City, especially in Manhattan or much of Brooklyn, is to live in an admittedly progressive bubble where most — though not all — legal and cultural issues relating to sexual orientation seem to have been resolved. But step outside the area, and things surely feel far different for those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer or intersex. The works shown in “The Sexuality Spectrum” reflect how it has felt to be oppressed, to be trapped, to be limited by bias against those who identify as LBTQ or I. And it shows that while there may have been a recent change in attitudes, there remains a long way to go.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen is a Forward contributing editor and Haaretz correspondent, and author of “Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter: Creating Jewish Ways to Welcome Baby Girls into the Covenant” (Jewish Lights).