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The small storefront window disrupting the Jewish art world

Even during the height of lockdowns, one art gallery was open. No, it wasn’t flouting Toronto’s strict regulations, which have kept museums closed for most of the year; FENTSTER, a gallery located in a storefront window in Toronto, was simply doing what it has always done, putting art right onto the street — it was just more needed than ever.

FENTSTER, which means “window” in Yiddish, is an installation space in Toronto, built in the large, street-facing window of Makom, a grassroots Jewish community now homed in an old art studio. Since it opened, in 2016, FENTSTER has one installation at a time up in the window, many of them created specifically for the space by various artists, each evoking or connecting to the Jewish experience in some way.

It’s public, free and designed to draw in anyone passing by, standing out next to the dim Domino’s nextdoor; during the pandemic, people in the neighborhood often took walks or jogs toward FENTSTER’s window to give themselves a destination and sense of purpose.

“We’re one of the smallest, scrappiest start-up art spaces, but yet we’ve opened four new shows and been able to stay open the whole year,” Evelyn Tauben, a long-time art world figure and the space’s founder and curator, told me over Zoom.

Evan Tapper's Grine Kuzine installation.

Evan Tapper’s Grine Kuzine installation. Photo by David Kaufman

Each of FENTSTER’s installations has been deeply layered with meaning and history. One, by Beijing-born artist Shellie Zhang, meditated on the gallery’s neighborhood’s past as a haven for Jewish and Chinese immigrants — much like New York’s Lower East Side — through a neon installation inspired by the marquee signage of a Yiddish-turned-Chinese theatre.

Another, by cartoonist Jonathan Rotsztain, created custom wallpapers that cover the walls of FENTSTER’s space. They serve as the backdrop to three vibrant, life-size cutouts of a Jewish man consumed by different emotional states, a meditation on Rotsztain’s own journey with his Jewish identity.

Tauben works with the artists to conceptualize their pieces — most are made specifically for FENTSTER — and to bring them to life. The marquee piece, for example, was paired with a joint tour of the Chinese and Jewish history of the area — both of which had existed for years but had never been brought together. Another exhibition, which recreated the window from a recently-defunct but beloved old Toronto Jewish creamery, had an opening reception with klezmer music and Ashkenazi delicacies.

Sandcatchers performs a sidewalk concert in front of the “Mandel’s Dreamery” installation.

Yet as she looked through projects from FENTSTER’s past five years — which, from my perspective, seemed chock-full of events and fascinating exhibits — Tauben frequently commented on how much more she wished she could do, and challenged herself to find an even greater breadth of diversity and depth of story.

Our conversation, lightly edited, below.

Can you tell me about the genesis of FENTSTER?

The storefront was an artist studio for a good seven or eight years, and [the artist], Rochelle Rubinstein, started curating the front window — sometimes she’d pop her own work in, or work by friends, and then it started to become this community space where people would contact her with ideas for the window. And then friends of mine who run an independent community minyan called Makom moved into the storefront.

I’ve always been interested in public art, it was kind of a subspecialty I made for myself when doing my master’s in Art History. The window is similar — it’s intimate but very much on the street. And it’s not public art in the sense of a sculpture in a park, so it allows you to do things that a monumental statue can’t do.

So we worked it out for me to take over the window space and consciously rebrand it for projects that I describe as connected to the Jewish experience.

Can you tell me more about this idea of public art, and what FENTSTER is able to do with this untraditional format?

There’s permanent public art — monuments, sculptures, murals, they have to have some kind of enduring qualities to them. FENTSTER fits into a different category of public art of interventions, like temporal interventions. Some of those can be really short-lived, like a dance performance in a park. We’re somewhere in between, because the shows are up for four months.

I’ve worked at the Smithsonian, I’ve worked at major public institutions, but there’s something about democratizing the art experience that’s true of all public art.

Part of what’s nice about FENTSTER is that I’m outside some of the traditional hierarchies or parameters that drive some of the art world. For example, Art Spiegelman exhibits in major museums, but otherwise there’s some condescension to cartoon art. Ceramics is often kept in the world of craft and not treated as a serious visual art medium. I like to work with all mediums and not be elitist about it.

“Patterns” by Jonathan Rotsztain, seen from across the street. Image by Morris Lum

There is something appealing that there’s no threshold to cross [at FENTSTER], there’s no hours to keep in mind, there’s no entry fee, there’s no code, there’s no way you have to be dressed. It’s for everyone.

The fact that it’s for everyone and that it comes from a Jewish place is also what’s, for me, significant about this project. Sometimes we also keep Jewish art relegated to Jewish spaces, and there’s also kind of an inner circle membership needed to access.

In a city like Toronto that really prides itself on being one of the most multicultural cities, so diverse, it can still get really siloed. This is a generalization — but one based on more than a decade of observation — that when there is an impetus to feature the multicultural flavor that is Canada, you don’t see Jewish in the mix. It goes both ways. People don’t think about Jewish culture, or maybe it doesn’t seem to check off enough diversity boxes because we don’t look like a minority, even though we are.

But we also need to say, “Hey, we’re here, and we’re part of this story.” FENTSTER really inserts and asserts itself on the street. Even though it’s small, it’s very central. It’s definitely a very mixed crowd that’s interacting with and engaging with the stories.

Can you tell me more about the neighborhood?

We’re on College St., which is just around the corner from Kensington Market, which was one of the first Jewish immigrant neighborhoods in Toronto — and then had many subsequent waves of immigration come through.

Kensington Market now is this funky pocket that still feels pretty eclectic, where you can get every type of food and there’s fun shops. There’s a lot of energy, a lot going on. One day, I was prepping for another show and it was boring — cleaning and scraping schmutz off the window. So I thought I’d count how many people walked by in the next hour. And then 100 people of all ages walked by in 15 minutes, so I stopped counting.

I know this is like asking you to pick a favorite child, but are there exhibits that have been particularly exciting to get, or gotten a great reaction, or just are a particular favorite?

They do all feel like my babies, and I do fall in love with them all in different ways. I love how the window is really transformed each time. You’d think there’d be only so many possibilities, but it does really take on a different character with each show.

There’s definitely a lot of attention to the projects we’ve done about the neighborhood. People like recuperating stories about the city. I’ve heard people say, “Oh, I didn’t know this was a Jewish neighborhood.”

There was one that was broadly about the Jewish food history of the neighborhood, but there was a lot of interest in this Yiddish sign that had stayed on a shop window for decades after it was no longer that business. And then when a new business came in, they thought the window wasn’t up to code, so there was a bit of tumult over saving the window. We incorporated that into the installation and there was a lot of interest.

Shellie Zhang’s “A Place for Wholesome Amusement.” Photo by Morris Lum

Similarly, there was a project with Shellie Zhang that looked at the Chinese newcomer experience and the Jewish newcomer experience through recreating marquee signs from a specific theater in this neighborhood that was used by both communities at different moments. There was a lot of interest in that.

It was interesting to me that the topic is so underexplored! The communities actually overlapped for decades. I just loved the image of all the lives that a building could have, and communities with a similar but different trajectory occupying the same spaces.

FENSTER seems like a challenging space because it’s so small, but it seems like so many of the pieces have turned that into an asset. Can you talk about how the space impacts the art?

There was this installation, for example, called “Jeremiah: ha’aretz” by Simon Glass; he originally had the piece in his studio, hanging on the wall flat and stacked. I think, initially, he thought we’d just hang it straight across.

“Jeremiah: ha’aretz” by Simon Glass at FENTSTER Image by Simon Glass

But often, there are things worked out on installation day — that’s part of being small and scrappy. The piece is made of airplane doors, vintage doors; he put this very high gloss finish on it and then these gilt Hebrew letters. But the back of the door is totally raw. He never imagined you’d be able to see that because he imagined it would be on a gallery wall.

Then we were playing around with a staggered, rising installation because of FENTSTER’s dimensions. I felt like, both the suspension and the ascent of the pieces embraced the fact that the material is from an airplane.

It had never been shown before, even though it existed before FENTSTER, and I really felt like the work was waiting for this moment, that this was its best outlet, to be floating and go up like that, not be static on a wall.

The Jonathan Rotsztain cartoon exhibit is also a really striking use of space.

There’s a raised platform in the window, so the floor of the gallery is not street level and it really becomes like a stage onto the street. This piece engages with the floor and the walls and was really about the challenge of how to translate his small-scale, 2D narrative cartoons into an installation.

Jonathan Rotsztain’s FENTSTER installation, “Patters.” Photo by Jonathan Rotsztain, Morris Lum

We talked about this idea that exists in some counseling circles about “the wallpaper in our lives” — that sometimes we grow up with these narratives or images or psychological patterns in our families that were so prevalent that you don’t notice it. Part of the work, if you want to become a self-aware, healed person, is to look at that wallpaper and decide if it’s going to determine your patterns of behavior.

Details of the wallpaper from the “Patterns” installation. Image by Jonathan Rotsztain

So the wallpaper in the installation is literal patterns out of invisible patterns of behavior. In one, Rotsztain pictures himself in bed as a child sleeping, but having a dream about being chased by Nazis. In another, he’s a baby in a crib, but he’s in the Auschwitz pajamas. Another has him straddling a havdalah candle, with scales weighing Canadian symbols against the earth, the land, so he’s feeling that tension between the gratitude that his grandparents came to Canada after surviving the war, but dealing with what it means to be a settler on indigenous land.

I love listening to you talk about these exhibits because they’re so richly imagined through your eyes. I wouldn’t necessarily think of or notice a lot of these details or interpretations.

I think that’s partly my curatorial style. I think what’s exciting about FENTSTER, is that I like a piece that has visual impact, street appeal, however you want to say it. You don’t have to know more or dig deeper — it still offers you an experience if you walk by on the sidewalk.

But if you’re curious to learn more, you can explore. There’s different entry points. It will speak to you on one level and hopefully have some emotional resonance, and there’s the curatorial statement, and then there’s your own interpretation and perspective. I think it’s important just for people to have visual thinking skills. And I really like looking closely.


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