Retracing Ancient Jewish Threads

Gail Rothschild

The Three Fates famously spin, measure, and cut cosmic threads, which makes one of literature’s greatest scenes even more poignant in its reversal of that natural order. Penelope ingeniously outwits suitors hoping to usurp her husband Odysseus’s role when he doesn’t return from the Trojan War. Suspecting that her husband still lives, Penelope promises the nogoodniks eating and drinking away her estate that she will select a husband only after completing a mourning shroud. Each night, however, she surreptitiously unweaves the day’s work.

The deconstructionist act of unweaving is exactly how Brooklyn-based artist Gail Rothschild came to see her work after exhibiting four or five major sculptures a year at museums and universities across the country for years. Her projects, she says, tended to address the environment or feminist or labor history, and she tailored each piece for the particular community it was made for. But she came to question whether her views on art and social activism were correct and decided to seek answers in temporary solitary confinement in her studio — which, among other things, placed her on a path that would lead to mining Jewish history.

“The while stretched longer,” she says. “Also, I realized that most of what I had created had, out of necessity, been destroyed.” It being the early 1990s, the works weren’t documented online.

Re-reading Homer’s “Odyssey,” she started considering what exactly Penelope had been weaving: A shroud for her father-in-law Laertes. “But a plain weave shroud would never have taken three years to weave, and Penelope kept her suitors at bay for that long,” Rothschild says. “Penelope was an artist and she was weaving a narrative tapestry — a story-cloth. But, I asked myself, what was the story that Penelope was weaving?”

She decided Penelope was weaving her own story, which she told and retold, painted and erased continuously. So Rothschild cut sections of pages out of the book which referred to Penelope, and she printed them and interwove them in strips with sliced up sections of her own paintings. “I went far with the Penelope metaphor, even positing The Suitors as the myriad distractions that can keep an artist from her work,” she says.

Soon she was creating works she called “fabrications,” which stretched knitted stitches into honeycomb patterns. Reading Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s 1995 book “Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years,” Rothschild was drawn to a fuzzy photograph, whose label identified the cloth as the earliest on record, dated to the fifth millenium BCE Using the cloth as a model, she found she had to make and un-make it as she went along.

“After that drawing, I began to look for other models, in books, online, and at the Metropolitan Museum,” she says. “Crawling around on the floor in back corners of the Egyptian wing, I discovered fragments of mummy wrapping and the strangely evocative head cloth from Tutankhamun’s tomb.”

Studying ancient objects, she grew interested in the “pseudo skin” that the remaining cloth constituted, “carrying with it the memory of the body, and it too was on the way to complete deterioration.” Further online research led her to the cloth from the Qumran Caves, the location where the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were unearthed. Her series, according to a news release, draws upon Prussian blue threads from a 3,000-year-old head scarf of King Tut’s, a loincloth of pharaoh’s architect, and the “cloth wrappers that guarded the Dead Sea Scrolls,” which “appear as maps whose coastlines are decaying.”

“Something clicked,” she says. “The shapes of the tiny fragments were surely evocative, but their use — to protect the temple scroll — that truly hit a nerve.” Linen was expensive at the time, and unlike cotton, it was as “permanent as a textile could be,” she notes. “The Jewish community had used this fabric not for their bodies but for their sacred scroll, their Torah.”

The series, “Portraits of Ancient Linen” which opens Feb. 2 at the National Arts Club in New York (until Feb. 21), is the artist’s first to address her Jewish heritage. Raised in a progressive Jewish home, Rothschild says her family wasn’t observant “but believed strongly in the ethical aspect of Judaism, Tikkun olam, and making the world a better place.”

She also started the ancient linen series after losing both parents in a short period of time. “I was dealing very directly with the fragility of life and the impermanence of all things,” she says. “Each tiny fragment of linen, amplified to a heroic scale, has a life of its own.”

The artist, a rock climber, knows a bit about heroic scale. “The art of climbing requires an eye to minute detail – every groove, every imperfection in the otherwise perfect rock must be interpreted in order to navigate the terrain,” she says. “In my work, I navigate the imperfections of aged textiles.”

Negative spaces in the artwork became places to hang on to, as well as spaces that were fodder for exploration. “I climb through the work to deliver an experience both provocative and sublime,” Rothschild says. “I invite you to do the same.”

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