Rephael Epstein’s matzah-inspired exhibit in Germantown is a redemption story and an exercise in sensory overload.
Entering “Into the Desert (Everyone Gets Their Just Desserts),” Rephael Epstein’s new show at iMPeRFeCT Gallery in Germantown, is an exercise in sensory overload, from the wonder of seeing a 1,200-square foot space’s walls covered completely — even around electrical outlets — in matzah, to the equally cognitive dissonance of hearing and feeling the squeak of the gallery’s sand-covered floors with each step.
But the most unexpected impact is the smell — an arid, dusky aroma that will be evocative but unrecognizable to most visitors, but instantly familiar to anyone who has spent time around a farm.
It is, revels Epstein, the smell of a clean, well-fed and well-stocked chicken coop — the smell of his childhood.
“This whole installation is full of memory and odor and personal journeys. When I was growing up as a lad,” the 63-year-old sculptor recalled, “my grandfather had a chicken farm in Freehold, N.J. Passover is such a clear memory of my life, of returning there every year with all of the aunts and uncles and cousins.
He recalled “very fond memories” of a big feed room in front of one of the coops. You walk in and there are things hanging from the ceiling, there are butcher blocks — it’s an amazing thing for a kid to experience as he grows up. I’ve been trying to reproduce the coop my entre life, and when I came in the next morning” after the installation, “it reminded me of the old coop — I finally reproduced it.”
The source of Epstein’s Proustian moment is, indeed, matzah — some 300 boxes’ worth, courtesy of Streits’ Matzos, the Lower East Side institution currently marking its last Passover baking season in New York City. The company donated all of the matzah after Epstein sent them an email explaining how he had already used their products as material in a prototype installation at a show in Baltimore in 2012 and what he planned to do with it at iMPeRFeCT. The mission includes “the intention and hope of becoming a voice in our community and in the ongoing conversation with the art world,” according to its website.
This is the second show Epstein has had at the gallery, but it is exponentially larger than his first, “The Sheets,” in 2013. That took place in The Red Room, which doubles as the gallery’s bathroom and featured the installation of toilet paper holders on virtually every available surface.
Epstein says that he began planning for “Into the Desert” around a year ago, when he found himself thinking about Passover, matzah and the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years — a pivotal number for the artist, who finally broke free of his substance abuse when he was 40.
Epstein spoke about that temporal link in a story about him reported by WHYY’s Neema Roshania on the air and on the station’s news website, newsworks.org. “I didn’t know if she was going to make that part of the public domain,” he said, uncertainty shading his timbre. “But I am glad she did that — it is important to the art, and it is a freeing feeling to be able to make the connection.”
Epstein has found that creating this installation, which includes two matzah-covered towers — one crowned by faux flame, one gently puffing dry ice smoke — in addition to the sand and walls, has led him to make other connections as well.
One in particular relates to his daughter, the musician Baht Rivka Whitten, who lives in Israel. During the installation process, he said, “I was up on a ladder, listening to her CD, overcome with emotion thinking about her. Immediately after that, I had the distinct feeling that God is happy with the installation and me because we are sharing the Passover story with all of the people who are not Jewish. That’s what we are supposed to do, and it has reconnected me with the Jewish God as I understood him growing up.”
Epstein’s younger daughter, the musician/cosmetologist Dena Miranda Epstein, performed at the show’s opening event.
As for what happens to all of that matzah post-Passover — it’s not destined to be chicken feed, nor is it fit for any other kind of animal. “It’s all attached to the walls with glue,” Epstein said sadly, noting that he would have liked to pass it on to a friend who raises hogs in Jeffersonville in Montgomery County. “I would have given it to him, even though it would have been a little unusual.”
IF YOU GO
“Into the Desert (Everyone Gets Their Just Desserts)”
Now through April 11
at iMPeRFeCT Gallery
5601 Greene St., Philadelphia