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At CJM, Jewish Artists Explore ‘Connection’ During a Time of Division

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Black and white image of river and brush with gold abstract shape
Georgina Reskala, 'Horas Transparentes,' 2022. (Courtesy the artist)

Prior to Oct. 7, 2023, the planned theme of California Jewish Open, a juried group show that opens June 6 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, was “Jewish joy.” By the time the open call went out in mid-November of last year, the museum had shifted to a theme of “connection.”

The resulting exhibition, guest curated by LABA Bay Area Artistic Director Elissa Strauss, is undoubtedly more somber than its unrealized version, in light of both its organizing principle and the horrifying realities of Israel’s ongoing assault on Gaza.

It is also incomplete. In April, a coalition of artists called California Jewish Artists for Palestine (CJAFP) withdrew five pieces from the exhibition after the CJM could not meet the conditions they required for their participation, which included divestment from Israeli government sources and “pro-Israel philanthropic organizations, funders and board members.” One additional artist, Liat Berdugo, withdrew her installation Seeing It For The Trees (previously exhibited at the Mills College Art Museum) with concerns about how her work would be contextualized in the show.

What remains is a broad survey of contemporary artwork by 47 Jewish artists from across California. Organized into four categories (Earth, Human, Past/Future, Divine), the show opens with a literal representation of connection: Bonny Nahmias’ The Orchestra Of Space Holders. A pair of tin-can telephones and illustrated books encourage visitors to follow a series of thoughtful, dream-like prompts. Next to an image of two figures reaching out to one another, Nahmias’ book reads, “Decrease negative space between you and them.”

Spread with text on left: "decrease negative space between you and them" and illustration on right of two figures
Bonny Nahmias, book spread from ‘The Orchestra of Space Holders,’ 2020. (Courtesy the artist)

A sense of care is evident throughout. California Jewish Open has worked hard to encompass a plurality of opinions, experiences and artistic approaches. The show’s wall text contains the expected elements of artist names and artwork details, along with a few sentences of curatorial rationale from Strauss. But the labels also include a quote from each artist.

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Many used this space as an opportunity to explain their relationship to Judaism, or how a particular work came to be. Adam Thorman reflected on growing up reading the marginalia in pages of rabbinic arguments, his lesson in thoughtfully challenging ideas (and later, traditional landscape photography).

Others took the opportunity to make explicit statements in solidarity with Palestinians, to cite their grief following Hamas’ attacks, or to express the conflicting emotions that come from having pride in one’s heritage and shame in the actions of the Israeli state.

And while these are statements issued in the context of a group setting, they aren’t necessarily a dialog. The completing factor in that exchange falls to the visitors, who may be prompted to begin conversations among themselves, or moved to introspection. Such outcomes are most likely to occur when a viewer’s own body is implicated or physically involved. Hence, some of the show’s strongest works — Meirav Ong’s Grief Stones, Anna Landa’s A Seat at the Table and Bernie Lubell’s Aspirations — are interactive.

Each of these comes with a list of instructions. Ong’s invites visitors to pick up porcelain stones and “imagine holding hands with a child in Gaza” before placing them on a pile reminiscent of a Jewish gravesite. Landa’s directs viewers to sit at a table decked out for a dinner party and feel an urgent physical reminder of our very finite existence. Lubell’s piece, a kind of zero-sum game couched in a Rube Goldberg contraption of wood, wire, video surveillance and inflatable loungers, sets up a clear dichotomy, then dismantles it. “No relationship is that simple,” he writes in his wall text.

Hanging sculpture made from bras cut apart and strung together
Amy Trachtenberg, ‘When I see you the sky is blue. When I don’t see you, the sky is blue,’ 2021. (Courtesy the artist)

All three of the works exist within the show’s “Human” galleries, which also contain works addressing family histories of immigration, recently discovered Jewish ancestry and notions of play. A perfect bridge between this section and “Past/Future” comes from Rebecca Ora’s haunting, relentless video Habibibuah, a split-second, infinite loop of a scene from the 2006 film Habuah (The Bubble), featuring two lovers, one Israeli and one Palestinian, nearly kissing as the camera zooms around them.

It’s in “Past/Future” that the impact of the withdrawn works becomes apparent. For each of the six missing pieces, the museum has printed the same paragraph of explanatory text and placed it beside a corresponding expanse of blank wall, “to honor the perspectives that would have been shared through these artworks, and to authentically reflect the struggle for dialogue.”

It’s a curatorial move that left this viewer torn between a yearning for the complete picture and a respect for the artists’ desire to control the presentation of their work. Without the pieces, several of which included explicit statements of “free Palestine,” what remains in the gallery is largely abstract and expressionistic. (An opening night action outside the museum by CJAFP temporarily filled this gap with live screen printing, speeches and music.)

Four Ukrainian head scarves embroidered with the words "Abolition - eto mitzvah, "a free Palestine - eto mitzvah," "queer - eto mitzvah," "rematriation - eto mitzvah."
One of the withdrawn works by CJAFP artists: Krivoy Kolektiv (Aravah Berman-Mirkin, Sophia Sobko, Irina Zadov), ‘The Four Mitzvot of the Queer Soviet Jewish Diaspora,’ 2021. (Courtesy of the artists)

In this gallery, as we witness a devastating assault on civilian life in Gaza, the limits of abstraction become painfully clear, as they have in past moments of violence and war. Strauss’ blurbs and the artists’ quotes are necessary reading for a complete and truly nuanced experience of California Jewish Open. Isolated from a larger body of work and without contextualizing factors, individual works, especially the abstract ones, can become unstable at best, misidentified at worst.

Juried exhibitions are difficult undertakings, and in California Jewish Open, the CJM has opted for an approach that is far more concise and discerning than something like the de Young Open. As the wall text explaining the withdrawn artworks says, we are in a moment when connection may feel insufficient or impossible. But it is important, as this show captures, even imperfectly, to try: to challenge the status quo; to enter into conversations about museum funding; to listen to artists’ demands; and to do it all with as much honesty and transparency as possible.

What is connection if not a series of attempts, failures and attempts again — to decrease the space between all of us?


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California Jewish Open’ is on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum through Oct. 20, 2024.

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