Museum  June 26, 2024  Megan D Robinson

Artists Manifest Connection at The Contemporary Jewish Museum

Courtesy the artist.

Georgina Reskala, Horas Transparentes, 2022. 

The Contemporary Jewish Museum (The CJM), whose ultramodern blue steel superstructure— fused with a 19th century power plant— has become an iconic part of San Francisco’s skyline, recently launched its first open-call exhibition, the California Jewish Open.

Boasting the largest attendance at one of the CJM’s openings since the pandemic, with around 800 visitors, the exhibition features almost 50 Jewish-identifying California artists responding to the question “How are artists looking to the many aspects of Jewish culture, identity, and community to foster, reimagine, hold, or discover connection?”

Before October 7, 2023, the exhibition theme was going to be “Jewish Joy.” However, as the Israel-Hamas war shocked and horrified the world and polarized communities— leading to a disturbing rise in antisemitism, as well as anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hate— the museum realized it needed to call on the power of art to facilitate new avenues of perception and communication. Thus, they shifted the theme to “connection,” before the open call was announced in November.

Courtesy the artist.

Amy Trachtenberg, When I see you the sky is blue. When I don’t see you, the sky is blue, 2021.

Guest curator Elissa Strauss says the exhibition creates a “platform for Jewish artists from throughout the state to exhibit their work and to delve into the many facets of what it means to seek out connection today.” 

She adds that the exhibition reflects “a core piece of Jewish culture: the belief in dialogue, debate, and questioning as a fertile source for sparking discussion and attempting to understand the world. This process is something Jews have long thought of as holy work.”

Carefully organized by Strauss into four categories— Earth, Human, Past/Future, and Divine— this nuanced collection encompasses a variety of opinions, experiences, and artistic approaches. Explanatory wall text lists the artist and artwork details, along with some curatorial notations from Strauss and a quote from each artist. 

Spanning the gamut from photography and painting, to participatory installations, the artwork explores Jewish identity, decries injustice and racism, investigates the world situation, and explores moments of connective joy. Some of the work also expresses solidarity with the Palestinians and grief over Hamas’ attacks.

Courtesy the artist.

Lisa Kokin, Red Line, 2023.

There are also blank spaces on the walls, marking places for absent artwork, with the quote “to honor the perspectives that would have been shared through these artworks, and to authentically reflect the struggle for dialogue.” 

Seven artists withdrew their work from the exhibition in April. One had concerns about how her installation would be contextualized within the show, while six are part of a coalition— the California Jewish Artists for Palestine (CJAFP)— who withdrew their work when the CJM could not meet their participation conditions, including divestment from Israeli government sources and “pro-Israel philanthropic organizations, funders, and board members.” 

This curatorial choice creates a thoughtful tension in the viewer. Leaving space for the absent artwork and missing perspectives honors these artists and respects their choices while encouraging critical thinking about why the artists chose to withdraw. 

Courtesy the artist.

Bonny Nahmias, The Orchestra of Space-holders, 2020.

The first piece in the exhibition, Bonny Nahmias’ The Orchestra Of Space Holders, uses a pair of tin can telephones and charmingly dreamy illustrated books whose thoughtful prompts encourage viewers to literally connect. 

In a panel from one of Nahmias’ books, two figures— reminiscent of astronauts with blue-black bullseyes over their hearts— reach out to each other across a rose pink ink-washed background. The corresponding text reads, “Decrease negative space between you and them.”

Part of a series centered around the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, Liz Lauter’s sculpted female head, Bride— inspired by the traditional folk art structure of the Mexican Arbol de La Vida— peers hopefully into the future, wearing an ornate botanical headdress. 

Full of looping dark shapes and bright circular accents, Amy Trachtenberg’s strikingly abstract and wonderfully tactile wall hanging, When I see you the sky is blue. When I don’t see you, the sky is blue, was created using deconstructed cotton, spandex and silk bras, steel and brass wire, acrylic paint, and glass. The piece invokes associations with the body, memory, and the environment.

Courtesy the artist.

Liz Lauter, Bride, 2023.

Many of the pieces engage our shared humanity. Meirav Ong’s installation Grief Stones creates a sympathetic resonance of shared history and grief. Visitors are instructed to pick up porcelain stones and “imagine holding hands with a child in Gaza.” The stones are then placed on a pile resembling a Jewish gravesite.

The California Jewish Open offers vital space for Jewish artists to explore this complex and challenging time while reinforcing the importance of connection through the shared experience of art.

According to Heidi Rabben, Senior Curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum, this “moving and timely exhibition brings together a very diverse and powerful group of works reflecting the many ways Jewish artists are seeking connection to aspects of Jewish identity, culture, history, and practices.”

Courtesy the artist.

Holly Wong, Lost Language II, 2018.

As it reflects “the Jewish community’s experience of tremendous grief and fracture,” the exhibition “aims to both sincerely and respectfully reflect that struggle as well as the hope to arrive at or restore some kind of connection through it,” making it “at various turns joyful, somber, humorous, and poignant.”

Rabben truly believes “everyone who visits will find at least one artwork in the exhibition that they will find deeply meaningful.” She adds a statement from one visitor, “Seeing the show felt like receiving a hug, which is a beautiful response that we hope others will experience as well.”

About the Author

Megan D Robinson

Megan D Robinson writes for Art & Object and the Iowa Source.

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