A new exhibition at Rutgers Camden spotlights the diversity of Israeli art and artists.
Like a proud papa, Martin Rosenberg can’t help but beam as he surveys the 51 works of art on display at “Visions of Place: Complex Geographies in Contemporary Israeli Art,” which opened last week at Rutgers University-Camden’s Stedman Gallery. But asking him to pick his favorite piece from the exhibit, which was four years in the making, is like asking that same father to pick his favorite child: Not only does he love them all, he learns something new about them every day.
That’s one of the things Rosenberg finds most appealing about the exhibition, which will run through Dec. 17, then shift over to Towson University, the home base of his friend and fellow exhibition co-curator, Susan Isaacs. No matter how many times he examines the works of the 36 artists — in media including paintings, photographs, videos and even a comically fictitious souvenir stand — he always finds something different.
He hopes those who come to the exhibition can appreciate the genius and effort that went into the work. “A work of art is like an onion,” said Rosenberg, Chair of the Department of Fine Arts and Professor of Art History at Rutgers Camden, following a career that had taken him from Memphis, to Tulsa, to Omaha, to Springfield, Mo. “You peel one layer and there’s another underneath.
“The power of art is so immense because art is a particular person’s view of what it means to be human. Another analogy I use with my students is that a work of art is like a strand of a spider web. The strand really has no meaning outside the web, but the web itself can’t exist without the strand. So art makes culture and culture makes art.”
If it sounds a bit esoteric, wait until you see the exhibition, which incorporates Israeli artists of all genders, religions, sexual orientations and political points of view. Such dichotomy is what Rosenberg, who actually started out studying chemistry at M.I.T. before re-routing his career path after taking an art history course, finds so intriguing about them. He would go on to receive both his master’s and Ph.D in art history at Penn.
Despite those differences among the artists, he’s discovered remarkable similarities. “One intriguing thing about art: On one level, it’s very personal,” said Rosenberg, who, along with Isaacs, made two trips to Israel, visiting galleries and meeting with the individual artists. “But another level transcends the personal.
“One of the really interesting things art can reveal is surprising commonality across apparent differences. Contemporary art is social, political, historical and gender-related.
“One of the things we felt was most important to show is that that Israel is a vibrant democracy with a diversity of points of view. Israel wants this diversity of opinion.”
All of this artwork has been completed within the last 10 to 15 years, with the majority of works of more recent vintage. The pieces reflect a country in constant uncertainty, which plays out in a number of ways. One thing that quickly becomes evident is how different the public perception of Israel is from the reality.
“Most of the artists are Jewish,” said the 64-year-old Rosenberg, who says little contemporary Israeli art has come to the United States in recent years. “Half are women. And that includes gays and lesbians as well as straight.”
After working together with Isaacs on the show, “A Complex Weave: Women and Identity in Contemporary Art” in 2009, they were searching for the next logical progression. “Visions of Place,” which is broken into five sections — “The Past and the Present,” “People in the Land,” “Contested Geographies,” “Interventions” and “Diverse Identities” — meets that challenge.
“For me it’s really a convergence of the personal and professional at a level I’ve probably never achieved before,” said Rosenberg, who enjoyed Memphis’ thriving Jewish community before he and his wife, Ellen, moved to Omaha, where they raised their son, Matt, and daughter, Valerie. “I had a sideline where I’d lecture on Jewish topics at synagogues around the country and at JCCs.
“But about 15 years ago I brought in an exhibition, ‘Women of the Book: Jewish Artists, Jewish Themes,’ to Missouri State, which made a profound impact on me. After that I said to myself, ‘Wait a minute! This is bringing my personal and professional values together in a way that’s very exciting.’ I’ve kind of been doing that ever since.”
When you enter the exhibition you’ll be immediately struck by a collection of colored discs on the floor which represents artist Maya Muchawsky Parnas’ impression of the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth, where everything floats due to the water’s salinity. While having a tour guide to walk visitors through the exhibit and explain some of its intricacies would be preferable, they’ve taken steps to help everyone get the most from the experience thanks to an interactive website that can be used before, during and after you visit.
“Traditional labeling is very limited,” explained Rosenberg, who says israelivisionsofplace.com can be accessed from any device. “Audio tours we find canned. Instead, we created a mobile-friendly website. You can go to a section on the site and have a bio of the artist with a link to their site or read a short statement about the work. This gives context to the work.
“We’re doing several things to get at the people, because you can’t assume they have great deal of knowledge of Israeli art.”
Among them is what he’s calling a “Movable Feast,” which includes a series of lectures on campus, as well as a Nov. 1 concert by flutist Mimi Stillman, whose Dolce Suono Ensemble will perform Israeli composer Shulamit Ran’s Moon Songs.
Reaching out to students as well as the Jewish community, Rosenberg is hopeful the project will generate enough interest to spark a national tour once the exhibition leaves Towson next spring.
“It’s about education,” said Rosenberg, who also will be putting out a 100-page fully illustrated catalog of the exhibition that will go on sale. “We probably have 1,000 K-through-12 students who will do workshops and I have 27 tours already booked.
“We weren’t looking to make a political statement. We worked really hard to be as balanced as we can. You can say things with art you can’t say any other way. But I think there’s an optimism here. The fact these people are making the art and think it’s worth doing, devoting their lives and trying to say something about the situation, that’s a type of optimism.”
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