Foreword by Stan Lerner: Matthew is a truly great screenwriter — it’s a pleasure to welcome him to the world of blogging.
The theme of the exhibit – Like Water on Rock – implies a subtle yet relentless procedure eventually, barely perceptibly but indelibly making its mark. The image is that of a tiny trickle – a drip, even – carving a niche for itself in solid stone over a period of years, centuries, millennia. The more grit or force employed, the quicker the effect, but it can’t really be hurried: the whole idea is to go unnoticed, with a finality only the truly intangible can achieve.
I guess I’m what you might call a disenfranchised Jew, except that I’ve never really held a charter to begin with. Sure, I’ve always felt a sort of fierce ethnic pride, but more out of reactive hostility than any true love or light. Since Rosh Hashana, my hot Sephardic girlfriend and I have been trying to reconnect with our roots by getting involved with Chabad’s JCC Downtown, which is how I met Fay Grajower, a visiting artist with a piece in the Jewish Women’s Artists Network show currently at the American Jewish University in Bel Air. Upon hearing I was a writer, Fay suggested I stop by and “cover” the show, to which I heartily concurred, even though that’s not really the kind of writing I’ve ever done before in my life. But here was an opportunity to oblige as true Landsman, so I jumped at the chance like a regular Fagin; a bona fide Shylock.
Two days later, at the official meet-and-greet artists’ buffet, I find myself trying to blend in with the attending crowd of warm, visceral Jews radiating the kind of community ease my florid spilkes can only hope to violate. I keep waiting for some frat security bocher to pull me aside and ask me what I’m doing here, because I honestly don’t know, convinced I’ll be exposed as the spectacular fraud I am and singlehandedly ruin the experience for all parties involved. Because I don’t fit in; I don’t belong. Try as I might, I am simply not a part of this. But I steel my nerve, adjust the stylish kippa I’ve chosen for the occasion, and proceed to check out the work.
The first piece I encounter – Freyda Miller’s 16” x 20” archival pigment print The Serenity Prayer – effects me more like Rock on Water than Water on Rock, shattering my cool façade with ripples of an all-too familiar dichotomy. The photograph shows the arm of an obviously committed Jew tattooed with the Hebrew characters of that particular prayer, beautifully etched into the skin with a religious conviction at odds with the taboo Torah places on such acts of self-mutilating beautification. But it is precisely this contradiction that allows the image to strike home on a level that – for me, at least – couldn’t be more personal or immediate, slamming me back into an ongoing discussion I’ve been having with myself not only for years, but the past few days in particular.
Last week, while instructing me in the rites of Tefilin, my Rabbi spotted the tattoo peeking out from under my rolled-up sleeve. This was the moment I’d been dreading for months: was I busted? Out..? He asked to see the rest of it, so I gave him a full view of the 1845 Smith & Wesson Sheriff’s Model .45 Peacemaker, inked by the legendary Bob Roberts on Melrose over 20 years ago, long before I ever dreamed of making any serious commitment to Judaism. (I was more into being a Glam Metal Playwright back then, determined to bring frontier violence to the stage. Today I am far more concerned with being a Jewish Glam Metal Playwright.) To my vast relief, the Rabbi told me not to worry: I wouldn’t have to get it removed, just try and not get any more. I actually got the feeling that – while not overtly approving – he was still kind of into it, in a way; that he could somehow relate. Which made me relate right back: to him, to the Heritage at large; to the art situation flooding rapidly back into focus all around me. Talk about visual stimulus tapping directly into the soul.
Inspired by this new sense of connection, I move on to the next piece: Cy Boy, an enormous photograph of the eponymous Bar Mitzvah Kid himself, gazing straight into his mother’s camera lens while floating on his back in a pool of water – caught, as the caption tells us, “in a state of transformation, [his] vulnerability exposed in a moment of unconscious beauty.” “Vulnerable” and “unconscious”, my tush – this kid is gorgeous, and he knows it. Should it happen to momentarily slip his mind, there’s a gaggle of parents’ friends and relatives on hand to remind him. For yes, Cy himself is in the house, soaking up the love. The resemblance is unmistakable. He looks exactly like his picture: confident, enigmatic, saftig, smooth, his Mona Lisa Schmollmund tickling admirers into fawning fits of pinch and squeal. Deep baby blue eyes sparkle out from under playfully arched brows with Alexander-like defiance, challenging all to match his perfection. Cy-in-the-flesh is having his picture taken with Cy-in-the-photo, flanked by members of his parents’ entourage: art imitating life imitating art simultaneously for his benefit alone. I loathe him immediately.
But I refuse to give up. I remind myself that I can do this; that I have every right to be here. Besides, I can’t leave until I’ve at least had a chance to check out Fay’s piece. And so I do, quickly stabilized by the ambient calm of its 28 wood panel grid: a warm-toned mosaic of passing imagery providing the comfort of an unhurried road trip; a soothing buffer into alien, homey terrain. And I realize: I know these pictures. I’ve never seen them before, but somehow still recognize them, their gentle repetition of themes and ideas awakening my inner Ur-fant like a seminal episode of Teletubbies. Holy Neshome!
And so I move on to Crumpled Columns, a 9/11-inspired piece that takes a moment to sink in, but then resonates with depth and intensity. The columns – ordinary t-shirts cut into strips, stretched beyond recognition – aren’t supposed to represent the Towers themselves, but the wrenching transformation of anyone touched by mass tragedy. It wholly embodies the phenomenon of shared experience, for better or worse; impossible to ignore. Like a bad dream or a nursery rhyme: Ashes to ashes, we all fall down.
Something draws me back to Fay’s installation, and I read the poem hanging unobtrusively beside it (written by the artist). Like the piece it is meant to accompany, the verse is stark and abrupt, yet gentle, soft:
shapes and words
She’s right, of course. And I realize that this not only reiterates the show’s theme, but also perfectly crystallizes the experience it’s triggered within me: a lifetime of defensive idiocy, neurotic insecurity and knee-jerk aggression – towards my relationship to Judaism, to lofty-themed art exhibits etc – being cleared away to make room for something entirely new, cathartic; something big and full and – dare I say it? – really nice.
In the midst of this astonishing revelation, I’m distracted by a conversation in progress nearby: Cy-Boy getting chatted up by yet another wide-eyed admirer, this one clutching the show’s glossy catalogue, open to the photo of everyone’s most beautiful boy. “You’re everywhere!” they exclaim. “I know,” Cy replies, deadpan. “You see the billboard they got of me on Times Square yet?”
Now waitaminnit. Hold the phone. Is this shtick I detect, shades of Lenny Bruce and the great tradition of indefatigable Jewish wit? This kid, who moments ago I wanted to see – well, maybe not actually hurt physically, but at least subjected to the kind of humiliation from whence I might reap some fairly decent Schadenfreude – this same kid is now emulating one of our mutual heritage’s proudest traditions, and I absolutely love him for it. He’s representing: perfectly, genius; so say we all.
Like Water on Rock.
February 22 – April 5, 2009
American Jewish University
Los Angeles, California
June 7 – August 24, 2009
The Finegood Art Gallery
Jewish Federation Valley Alliance
West Hills, California
September 10 – October 30
Gotthelf Art Gallery
San Diego Center for Jewish Culture
Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center
JACOBS FAMILY CAMPUS
La Jolla, California