A new exhibit at the Gershman Y features contemporary artists wrestling with the relationship between vocabulary and spirituality.
When trying to decipher the inspiration and execution of Martin Brief’s work, “Amazon God,” nothing came to mind so much as a 21st-century variation on the Walt Whitman poem, “Song of Myself.” The enormous work — 28 panels in all — that painstakingly catalogues the artist’s Googling of the word, “God,” in exquisitely rendered calligraphy seems to have exchanged “I am large, I contain multitudes” for “My search results are large, they contain multitudes of hits.”
Visitors to “And the Word Is … ”, the new show at the Gershman Y’s Gershman Gallery, will be able to see only four of those panels. To display the entire series would be a feat beyond the Paul Cret-designed space’s capability — and it would also mean there wouldn’t be room for the other seven artists in the show, including Stephanie Kirk.
J. Susan Isaacs, the show’s curator, said that it was Kirk’s series of photographs chronicling church signs — you know the ones, with humorously religious wordplay designed to entice attendance like “God wants full custody, not a weekend visit” and “Much kneeling keeps you in good standing” — that gave her the idea to put on the first iteration of the show in 2012 at the Delaware Center for Contemporary Art in Wilmington.
“Stephanie asked for a one-person show” dedicated to her photographs, Isaacs recalled. “I looked at them and I thought, ‘I would really like to create a whole show around this!’ I saw a trend — there were a lot of artists trying to find a vocabulary for religion and spirituality in contemporary art.”
Isaacs, a Delaware native who is a professor of art history and the curator of the departmental galleries at Towson University in Maryland, has since refined and expanded “And the Word Is … ” to hew closer to her original intent to demonstrate how art can provide an ecumenical examination of where and how people draw religious inspiration.
As a result, in addition to Kirk’s catalog of catechetical come-ons and Brief’s totemic inscriptions, visitors to the show will also see some of Sandow Birk’s “American Qur’an,” the Los Angeles artist’s hand-transcribed and illuminated version of Islam’s central religious text. There is also sculpture by Nicholas Kripal and an unusually direct mixed-media approach by Johanna Bresnick and Michael Cloud Hirschfeld for incorporating religious learning into modern lives — snippets of Leviticus placed into pill capsules.
Some of the most intricate and intriguing works in the show are those of Carole Kunstadt, an artist from upstate New York whom Isaacs found through the Jewish Art Salon, the New York-based online community of Jewish artists and scholars. She has deconstructed the Bible to create works of paper bound with different materials, including gampi, the diaphanous Japanese tissue paper; linen thread; and 22-karat gold leaf.
Kunstadt said that she has always worked with paper, but it has only been in the last nine years that she has used books in her art, including the family heirloom that forms the foundation of her contribution to the Gershman show.
“This book” — a 1904 edition of the Hebrew Bible with artwork by James Tissot — “was given to my paternal grandfather by his congregation,” she said. “He was an Orthodox Jew who had a very active part in establishing the synagogue in his small Massachusetts town. When my mom’s house was sold, this book was without a home. I readily accepted it — the covers were disintegrating, but the paper was intact” enough, she added, for her to transform it.
The resulting pieces, which feature pages from the Bible cut, shaped and bound to either look like or give an echo of books themselves, thrum with a contained religiosity. This is achieved both through the construction and through the arrangement of the shapes, most notably in the assemblage that immediately calls to mind the foundation for the Temple Mount. It is hard not to immediately hearken to the binding of Isaac looking at one piece, to the taharah ceremony for burying the dead in white linen in another.
While Kunstadt readily acknowledged the explicit and implicit Jewish nature of her work, including her arranging what she called “the implied foundation of Judaism,” she said the inspiration is far from all hers. “I work intuitively,” she emphasized. “I’m very sensitive to the unexplainable.”
That sense of being the vessel through which art is created is shared by David Stephens, the longtime Philadelphia sculptor who also channeled Jerusalem for his contribution to the show. “Gethsemane Gates” is a five-part installation that incorporates braille as an element of both design and function.
“I don’t come up with” the ideas, said Stephens, one of the show’s non-Jewish participants. “I’m more of a conduit; whatever I’ve done, on some level there has been a presence.”
He may find inspiration from above, but Stephens’ use of braille in his sculptures is borne out of utility. “It’s just a tool for me,” said the sculptor, who has been legally blind since 1979. “When I started to lose my sight, I said to myself, ‘What of all this can I use as a tool?’ ”
Stephens’ use of the tactile language adds multiple dimensions to his work. It allows him to create unexpected patterns in different layers, to craft a literal subtext — and to amplify the desire to experience it first-hand.
He laughed when asked if he designs his pieces to be touched. “Yes it is, but it has a humorous irony about it. It’s meant to be touched, but you’re not supposed to do that in a museum. That has to do with the insurance company — not the artist or the curator.”
IF YOU GO
“And the Word Is… ”
Through May 14 at the Gershman Gallery at the Gershman Y
401 S. Broad St., Philadelphia