Holy Daze

Combining the Bible with contemporary art gets mixed results at the Singer Gallery.

Located within the Jewish Community Center, the Singer Gallery's association with the Jewish community might create the assumption that it explores only Jewish themes in art. But for a long time, Singer has presented shows that, while typically of interest to the Jewish community, have not, strictly speaking, been Jewish in theme.

The many examples over the years include several exhibits devoted to artists who fled the Nazis; a show about artists who were blacklisted during the Red Scare; and a number of exhibits showcasing artists who created work with left-wing political content. Only some of the artists exhibited were Jewish, but in each show -- and more important, in terms of the historical angles -- Jews played a central role. None of these shows concerned itself with the Jewish religion, per se.

"I leave the exhibits of Judaica to the Mizel Museum," says gallery director Simon Zalkind, referring to the separate institution housed in the BJ-BMH Synagogue. "They're so much better at it, and what we do here is not about Judaica, but about local and regional contemporary art. On the other hand, having a Judaica resonance once in a while is nice for an institution like ours, which has implicit religious affiliations because we're in the JCC."

Detail of "Brothers," by Steve Batura, painting.
Detail of "Brothers," by Steve Batura, painting.

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Through November 5

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Singer Gallery, Mizel Arts Center, 350 South Dahlia Street

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So in an effort to combine the Jewish religion with contemporary art, Zalkind asked some prominent local artists to create a work in response to the Bible. The result is Call and Response: Contemporary Colorado Artists and the Hebrew Scriptures, the Singer's fall entry.

"This is the most heavy-handedly Jewish thing we've done since I've been here," says Zalkind, who took over as director in 1999. "But more than two-thirds of the artists in the show are not Jewish."

In this case, however, that fact led to an inadvertent problem. To Christians, the Bible is divided into the Old Testament and the New Testament. But for Jews, there is no New Testament.

"Sometimes people are not sensitive to the fact that Jews don't have a New Testament," Zalkind says. "We have only the Hebrew Scriptures, which we also call the Torah." The Hebrew Scriptures, of course, correspond to the Old Testament of the Christians. Jews do not accept the New Testament, which is about Jesus Christ.

Nevertheless, two artists did pieces about Jesus, Zalkind says, "which doesn't work because, of course, Jesus is not mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures." Although Zalkind didn't include these pieces, he did give the artists a chance to argue their cases. "There are passages in the Hebrew Scriptures that could be interpreted as being prescient of the coming of Christ -- what's called 'exegesis' in theology," he says. "But neither artist could cite a reference in the Scriptures that justified their pieces, and I insisted that artists have a biblical reference and cite it by chapter and verse."

Since the gallery is one in which children and religious groups routinely tour, Zalkind also required that "nothing be scatological, contemptuous or pornographic." But there was "a failure in communication in one case," he says. As a result, Zalkind had to exclude a third piece, one by Denver artist John Hallin, which is based on the account in Genesis of Onan, who was the son of Judah -- and a prodigious masturbator. "I don't think the piece was mean-spirited, and I don't think it was an attempt by John to flaunt the rules of the show or anything like that," Zalkind says. But, he adds, "I knew it was inappropriate for this institution, and so did he." (Hallin would give another exhibition organizer trouble the very next week when he failed to install his solo show at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art in time for its September 14 opening.)

Though three artists may have misunderstood the nature of the show, at least four dozen others came through. At first, however, Zalkind wasn't sure his idea was going to work. "When I first started calling artists, I got a pretty tepid reaction," he says. "Not negative, exactly, but more like 'I can't do Bible stories'...They were thinking about the Bible according to Cecil B. DeMille, all loincloths and gladiators. But I explained that that's not what I wanted. Instead, I wanted things that made the Scriptures relevant in a non-spiritual world, and I'm so impressed by the depth of the show and by the fact that most artists were not political or cynical about the topic."

Unfortunately, Zalkind chose an odd assortment of contemporary artists with no apparent connections to one another. He simply sat down and listed fifty artists off the top of his head (no modest accomplishment in itself). Unfortunately, a planning snafu prevented some of the artists from being contacted until the last minute.

As a result, the show is less than the sum of its parts. That's not to say it isn't worthwhile: It offers the chance to see the efforts of at least three distinctly different generations of the alternative scene as well as the commercial gallery culture, with artists from the last two decades represented. But Call and Response is a lot more interesting than it is good.

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