Jewish Art or Jewish Kitsch?
Walking around the loosely organized “Jew York” show at the UNTITLED gallery on the Lower East Side and the Zach Feuer Gallery in Chelsea, I began to feel a slight sense of unease. Was it the mezuzah that had mysteriously appeared on the doorpost of UNTITLED? Or the collection of men’s suits from the venerable Orchard Street suit dealers Global International that were also available for purchase in the front entrance of the Zach Feuer Gallery?
The premise of the show sounded honest enough — a group exhibition of over 75 artists spread over two contemporary art galleries, surveying the art of Jews who reside in New York City, or who are connected to New York City, or who are just Jewish. Despite the obvious connection that Jews have with art, UNTITLED provided a tome-like educational essay by Sy Colen extolling the lineage of Jewish artists. Yet something was amiss.
UNTITLED seemed to have most of the younger artists, with the work hung according to color palette. Greg Goldberg contributed a small well-executed gouache abstraction. Asher Penn, who reminds me of Dash Snow without the insane drug use, contributed a yellow t-shirt with the word Aleph screen printed in Hebrew. Keren Cytter displayed a stack of 30 ballpoint drawings of what we can assume are Jews, or at least images of a person with dogs. In the entrance David Levine presented his father’s portraits of Mark Rothko’s studio.
Bold names, rising stars, and a host of others are represented with selections of minor works. A lean Alex Katz portrait and a Marc Chagall painting were among the artworks that packed the gallery. There is a lot of art in this show, and healthy a portion created in 2012-13, but unfortunately nothing that wowed.
The installation at the Zach Feuer Gallery came off slightly better. Joshua Neustein’s rocks, scattered on the gallery floor and covered with Hebrew, English, and Arabic text from newspapers, were solemn and meaningful — perhaps the best work in the show. Jonas Wood’s portrait of a dog sat happily squirreled away in the back office. Dan Colen’s object painting hung dominantly in the main room and forced one to contemplate the sheer perseverance of an artist determined to churn out bad work. Joel Sternfeld contributed a photograph of a boat. Jamie Sneider installed calendars of herself as a half-naked Jewish pin-up.
The single biggest flaw was the curation of the work. I get the humor in the faux survey that the galleries allude to in the press release — that “our only option was to do a show of Jews, and do it in New York.” However, it is sad that when faced with a treasure trove of beautiful work, one chooses to be glib rather than insightful. The joke simply falls flat and begs the question: Is it possible to have a show about Jewish artists without resorting to Jewish kitsch? We will have to wait to find out.