When an­tisemitism is art

Zoya Cherkassky’s paint­ings use hor­ri­fy­ing images to show how Jew-ha­tred per­me­ates our self im­age. By An­gela Levine

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts & Books -

Zoya Cherkassky is cur­rently a hot prop­erty in the Is­raeli art world. Seven years out of art school, and her paint­ings are sell­ing for £8,000 a piece.

Col­lec­tio Ju­daica, Cherkassky’s first solo show held in 2000 at the Rosen­feld Gallery, Tel Aviv, at­tracted an un­usual amount of at­ten­tion. The two-floor in­stal­la­tion, in­cor­po­rat­ing paint­ings, sculp­ture, furniture and wo­ven ob­jects, dwelt on an in­trigu­ing sub­ject: how an­tisemitic pro­pa­ganda per­me­ates the self-im­age of Jews.

In­tro­duc­ing this theme was a win­dow dis­play of three gold brooches in the shape of a Star of David, with the word Jude in­cor­po­rated into their de­sign. As might be ex­pected, the trans­for­ma­tion of this im­age, with its tragic as­so­ci­a­tions, into a piece of jew­ellery elicited hos­tile re­ac­tions from some sec­tions of the com­mu­nity. But art crit­ics loved this show.

Among the works fea­tured was the Wan­der­ing Jew, a plas­ter sculp­ture of a man seated on a suit­case. Cherkassky drew many of the de­tails in­cor­po­rated into this tableau from an­tisemitic pro­pa­ganda — such as the paint­ings of Cha­sidic Jews whose bod­ies re­sem­bled those of black crows. How­ever, a cush­ion em­broi­dered with a grotesque rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a Jew is ac­tu­ally based on a paint­ing by Cha­gall.

Also dis­played were a num­ber of Mizrach plaques, the signs de­not­ing the di­rec­tion of Jerusalem, which are of­ten dec­o­rated with draw­ings of fan­tas­tic beasts. But in Cherkassky’s makeover, in­spired by a col­lec­tion of 19th-cen­tury an­tisemitic post­cards known as the Jewish Zoo, an­i­mals were given “Jewish” faces.

From 2004 on, Cherkassky be­gan to chal­lenge the es­tab­lish­ment. For her witty ex­hi­bi­tion La Bal des Vic­times — named af­ter the balls that took place in France fol­low­ing the Revo­lu­tion — she pro­duced a set of painted metal fig­ures (each 50cm high) pur­port­ing to rep­re­sent in­di­vid­u­als who have suf­fered at the hands of gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials. Among them were the Vic­tim of Ed­u­ca­tion, with a pen­cil stuck up her bot­tom; and the Vic­tim of Science, with three faces and a per­ma­nent blood trans­fu­sion.

Vi­o­lence al­ways sim­mers be­low the sur­face in Cherkassky’s art, al­though tem­pered by fan­tasy and wit. But it erupts with force in her new paint­ing se­ries now show­ing in Tel Aviv. This time, around her vic­tims are the art es­tab­lish­ment it­self, and the mu­se­ums whose author­ity she chal­lenges by in­sti­gat­ing acts of van­dal­ism and slaugh­ter within their walls.

On dis­play are 11 large paint­ings. De­vel­oped from sketches, they were pro­cessed in a com­puter, printed onto large can­vases and then com­pletely re­painted. Each pic­ture shows the in­te­rior of a mu­seum with works by fa­mous mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary artists in situ. In all but one pic­ture, doll-like fig­ures rep­re­sent typ­i­cal mu­seum-go­ers. If nor­mal­ity had reigned, th­ese peo­ple would prob­a­bly be look­ing at the art­works.

But here, the or­der and sanc­tity of this in­sti­tu­tion are shat­tered by ter­ri­fy­ing, larger-thanlife ap­pari­tions. In one pic­ture, a bare-breasted wo­man wields a power saw; in an­other, a red tongue snaking out from the mouth of a blue­headed wo­man is clos­ing in on a vic­tim. Some of the vis­i­tors are al­ready dead, oth­ers dis­mem­bered, their bod­ies sprawled on the floor. The walls are blood-splat­tered and art works have been des­e­crated. One of the strong­est paint­ings is Who Let the Dogs Out? It was this pic­ture, shown to Ellen Gin­ton — cu­ra­tor of her new ex­hi­bi­tion at the Helena Ru­bin­stein Pavil­ion of the Tel Aviv Mu­seum — a year and half ago, that con­vinced her that Cherkassky’s new se­ries would merit a mu­seum show­ing. She says that this young Rus­sian-born artist im­pressed her early on for “the solid aca­demic ba­sis to her work, her orig­i­nal ideas, hunger for cul­ture and will­ing­ness to work hard”.

In the pic­ture, a pack of fe­ro­cious dogs is ram­pag­ing through the gallery, and though it is empty of peo­ple, one senses that the de­struc­tion of prop­erty and hu­man lives is but a breath away.

A trip­tych, Ac­tion Paint­ing, gives its name to this se­ries. In all three com­po­si­tions, vis­i­tors to the gallery are seen milling around an An­thony Caro sculp­ture. But sheets of paint par­tially ob­scure our view of this scene. None of the peo­ple in the pic­ture is look­ing at this ex­hibit. Eyes raised, they ap­pear to be wait­ing for fur­ther falls of paint.

Art his­to­ri­ans writ­ing about Cherkassky’s work seek to as­sess her sources of in­spi­ra­tion. Given that her child­hood was spent in the for­mer Soviet Union, they point to Rus­sian con­cep­tual art and that coun­try’s tra­di­tions in poster and book il­lus­tra­tion, char­ac­terised by dra­matic con­tent, clear out­lines and strong colours.

Un­doubt­edly, science fiction and cin­e­matic im­agery have also en­tered her artis­tic lex­i­con. In an eru­dite text for the cat­a­logue of this ex­hi­bi­tion, Gin­ton refers specif­i­cally to the 1989 film Bat­man, in which a gang goes on an icon­o­clas­tic ram­page in a mu­seum.

Cherkassky is cur­rently liv­ing in Ber­lin, at­tend­ing the pres­ti­gious In­ter­na­tional Artists in Res­i­dence pro­gramme at the Kün­stler­haus Bethanien Art Cen­tre. This is not her first time in Ger­many. In 2001, liv­ing in Aachen, she be­gan pen­ning and il­lus­trat­ing a Ha­gadah.

The orig­i­nal is now in the Is­rael Mu­seum’s col­lec­tion, but there are 50 seri­graphed copies pro­duced by the Rosen­feld Gallery. It is a cre­ation of stun­ning orig­i­nal­ity.

Cherkassky is not ob­ser­vant, but it seems she un­der­went a pro­found re­li­gious ex­pe­ri­ence dur­ing this project. Ex­e­cuted in black, white, red and gold, God is rep­re­sented by the early 20th-cen­tury Rus­sian artist Male­vitch, whose supre­ma­tist paint­ings were de­void of ref­er­ences to the vis­ual world.

Cherkassky has pro­duced art which stands out for its orig­i­nal­ity and qual­ity but also for its au­da­cious con­tent. Con­se­quently, it is open to both praise and con­tro­versy.

Clock­wise from top: Blue Face, (2006); Il­lus­tra­tion from the Aachen Passover Hag­gadah (2002); Cherkassky with The Vic­tim of Science (2002); Cush­ion­fromtheWan­der­ing Jew tableau (2002); Jude brooch (2002)

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