Holy Daze

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

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."

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.  

One of the first things that will catch your eye is the set of four Iris prints in full color done this year by John Bonath and collectively titled "The Blessings." One, subtitled "The Kingdom of Fate," depicts the story of Adam and Eve, which is told in Genesis. In Bonath's version, however, a wooden arm reaches for a skull, not an apple.

On the adjacent wall is an unusual three-panel casein-on-canvas painting called "Brothers," by Steve Batura. It is also based on a story from Genesis, the parable of Cain and Abel, and it was created specifically for this show. The panels are done in monochromes -- the two small ones in gray and one in sepia. All three are obviously takeoffs on antique photos, and each shows a pair of men. The choice of the Cain and Abel story is an interesting one for Batura, as it relates metaphorically to his oft-referenced messy divorce of a few years ago, when his best friend ran off with his wife.

Next up is one of the only recognizably religious artifacts in the show, "When the Cloud Moves," by Susan Edwards and Antonette Rosato. Done this year, it is a facsimile of the Ark of the Covenant as described in Exodus. Instead of wood and gold, the artists used gold reverse-painted Plexiglas to construct the box-like ark; inside, they placed the Decalogue, the two tablets on which the ten commandments are inscribed. The ark is extremely elegant and is filled with visually interesting elements.

Hung beyond it is a major oil on canvas by Barbara Shark titled "Building on Blue Mountain." Part of a series concerning the construction of a single building, the painting shows a crew of workmen covering a wall with stucco. Shark gives the everyday activity of construction a sense of spirituality by citing passages from Isaiah, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, all of which use the idea of building in a symbolic sense.

No one should be surprised by perennial bad-boy art star Matt O'Neill's choice of the Tower of Babel as the topic for his acrylic-on-paper "Babel/Babble." This piece was originally done in 1997 and reworked this year for this show. O'Neill has embraced a number of styles over the last fifteen years, some of them simultaneously. "Babel/Babble" is an example of his cartoonlike surrealist approach, which tips its hat to the style of the late, great Philip Guston.

Nearby is a stunning piece by Bruce Price, one of the most talked-about painters to emerge locally in the last few years. "Untitled (In the Beginning)," a 2000 acrylic on canvas based on the opening lines of Genesis, is even more minimal than usual for the neo-minimalist painter: The picture is essentially white with a few black lines. It is clearly one of the best things in this exhibit.

Another fine piece is Ira Sherman's 1999 mechanical sculpture, "Kahouna Kahana (Surfing Tzadakah)," made of metal, glass and electronic components. Tzadakah (or tzedaka) is Yiddish for "justice," and Sherman cites the concept of justice -- which includes the notions of fairness and charity -- from Deuteronomy. In recent times, the word has been used to describe a collection box, and this is how Sherman uses it, too. When visitors insert a coin in "Kahouna Kahana," the sculpture moves, and the donor is thanked by a mechanical voice -- in Hebrew, no less.

Near the end of the show, we come to one of Bill Stockman's signature drawings. Despite its secular title, "Lioness," a charcoal on paper done this year, is cast in a biblical light by the story of Daniel in the lion's den from the Book of Daniel. This section describes a struggle over the treachery of others and then a triumph over the dangerous beasts themselves. Running down the center of the picture is a male nude with a lion's head. In his written statement, Stockman suggests that Daniel remained safe from the lions by becoming one of them.

Another important work is "Don't Know," a mixed-media drawing on paper done in 2000 by Steve Altman. The piece is a large abstract-expressionist composition featuring Altman's characteristic scribbles, wrinkles and big areas of color. Unlike most of the other works in the show, this one isn't based on any single biblical reference, but rather on the broad topic of faith, which Altman notes is repeatedly referred to in the Bible. Also unlike most of the others, it's hard to link the incomprehensible details of "Don't Know" in any way to the Scriptures, and it seems to be about nothing more than visual delight.  

Call and Response has a lot of problems, the worst of which is that not much more than the titles connects the works to the Bible or to each other. But that doesn't mean there isn't plenty to see.

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