Who You Are

How You See It

Art: An Exhibit In Owings Mills Raises Questions Of Identity That Apply Not Only To Jewish-americans But To All Ethnic Groups.

April 20, 1997|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

Dennis Kardon's painting "Lover's Quarrel" goes to the heart of the matter. It's a double self-portrait shown from the back, and the two representations of Kardon are attached at the shoulder as if he were Siamese twins. On one of his two heads he wears a yarmulke (Jewish skullcap); on the other, a baseball cap.

The painting makes visual a number of questions raised by the exhibit "Too Jewish?" opening today in Owings Mills. If you're a Jewish-American, to what extent are you Jewish and to what extent are you American? Is it impossible to be both at the same time? Are you always scarred by this duality, like the visible scar on the back of the Kardon twins? Is it possible to have a Jewish identity without sacrificing your American identity and vice versa?

To discover this show's wider relevance, substitute your own subgroup for Jewish in the paragraph above: If you're Polish/African- Ameri-can/gay/Catholic/fe-male/Asian-American, to what extent are you ?

"Too Jewish: Challenging Traditional Identities" brings together 45 works -- from painting and sculpture to videos and installations -- by 23 Jewish artists on the subject of Jewish identity. A national touring show organized by Norman Kleeblatt of New York's Jewish Museum, it opened there in March of last yearand has so far traveled to San Francisco and Los Angeles.

It is presented in Baltimore jointly by the Jewish Museum of Maryland and the Contemporary Museum. The latter is Baltimore's "museum without walls," which presents contemporary art in temporary sites -- including other museums such as the Maryland Historical Society, the Walters Art Gallery and the Baltimore Museum of Industry.

"For the Contemporary, it's the first project in Baltimore County and the first initiative outside Baltimore City," says Contemporary curator Lisa Corrin. For the Jewish Museum of Maryland, it's the first contemporary show.

Because the museum's permanent home, on Lloyd Street, is currently undergoing expansion, the installation is in a vacant retail site at 10377 Reisterstown Road in the Garrison Forest Plaza shopping center.

The site provides a generous 11,000 square feet, allowing for an expansive installation of the show, plus a resource room and other spaces. Also, "It's the epicenter of where a young generation of the Jewish community is moving," says Jewish Museum of Maryland curator Barry Kessler. "And it allows a downtown institution to reach out and do something in this neighborhood." But, he adds, the Owings Mills area is not solely a Jewish community. "And the show is universalized," he says. It's not subject-specific only to Jews."

A trend in art

The show picks up on one of the most popular trends of recent art history -- the subject of identity.

Among the leading shows of the genre have been "The Decade Show," presented at three New York museums in 1990 and exploring Asian-American, African-American and Hispanic identities; "Mining the Museum," a 1992 collaboration between the Contemporary Museum and the Maryland Historical Society dealing with African-American identity and created by New York artist Fred Wilson; "Asia/America: Identities in Contemporary Asian American Art" at New York's Asia Society in 1994; and last year's "Sexual Politics," exploring feminist art, at the Armand Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.

An important book on the subject is critic Lucy Lippard's "Mixed Blessings: New Art in a Multicultural America," published in 1990.

But, "Jewish identity has until now played a minor role in both the writing about and the exhibition of identity-based art," writes Kleeblatt in the exhibit's catalog. "While Jews certainly have been included in some of the exhibitions of [identity-based] art, it has not been for their Jewishness, but for their primary public identities as, for example, women, Holocaust survivors, lesbians, or gay men."

The reason for this omission, Kleeblatt adds, lies at least partly in the successful assimilation of Jews in postwar American society. Termed by Kleeblatt an "empowered minority," Jews have moved more and more into mainstream society, but the price has often been their Jewish identity.

The show has been appreciated for its serious themes and also for its sometimes light approach. "With its rich, and often hilarious, commentary on the melding of Jewishness, gender, sexuality, and class in postwar American culture," wrote Carol Ockman in Artforum magazine, "this exhibition makes one of the most compelling cases to date for the irreducibility of identity."

"The work in this show, to its credit, is different from much of the race-based, gender-based and ethnic-based stuff that has swamped the art scene in the last decade," wrote Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times. "First of all, it has got a sense of humor about itself (some of it does, at least), and second, it isn't the usual victim art."

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