Blame Comes In Whispers

April 28, 1997|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

"Too Jewish?" must be the world's most polite show about identity. Most of the currently popular genre known as identity-based art is about people who have been kicked around -- African-Americans, women, gays, lesbians and so on. And understandable anger against those doing the kicking frequently surfaces.

Historically speaking, Jews may have more to rail against than anyone else. But they're mostly calling themselves to account here. On the positive side, the work is frequently funny and usually interesting. But it has less impact than one expects.

A product of the Jewish Museum in New York, this traveling show is presented here by the Jewish Museum of Maryland and the Contemporary Museum, Baltimore's museum without walls that shows contemporary art in temporary spaces. The site is a vacant building in the Garrison Forest Plaza in Owings Mills, which provides a generous space for this show about the dilemma facing Jews in American society: assimilation or identity?

The show's subtitle, "Challenging Traditional Identities," is richly ironic. Jews have assimilated so well into the homogenizing American culture that, in order to reclaim Jewish identity, they must challenge their own tradition of assimilation.

The exhibit has three sections -- on the body, popular culture and ritual -- but actually four themes weave their way through these sections: Stereotypes, assimilationism, search for identity and complexity of identity.

Some works deal with both stereotypes imposed from without and coming from within Jewish culture. With its 49 disparate sculptures of noses taken from New York art world Jews, Dennis Kardon's "Jewish Noses" satirizes the "Jewish nose" stereotype. Neil Goldberg's "Shecky," with its portraits of six Jewish comics superimposed on matzos, seeks to reclaim Jewish comedy from the assimilationist view of it as constituting a stereotype.

Elaine Reichek's installation "A Postcolonial Kinderhood" looks back on her assimilationist childhood in a house furnished with Colonial reproduction furniture and early American samplers. In her re-created room, one of them bears the prescription, "Don't be loud, don't be pushy, don't talk with your hands." Jewishness is expressed discreetly, the proper white linen towels embroidered with almost unnoticeable monograms that whisper jEw.

The search for roots includes Art Speigelman's "Maus" comic strip, about the difficulty of identifying with his Holocaust-survivor parents, and Ilene Segalove's audio work on the difficulty of being Jewish in a Christian culture.

All the show's works are accessible, but they're also too easy to take. Because Jews here largely blame themselves for their loss of identity, the impact on the rest of us is not great. That's compounded by the site, its wide-open spaces diluting the works' effect. They should be more clustered, to force us to see them at closer range. It's as if the show were trying not to be loud or pushy, when it needs a little of both.

And it must be said that most of these works do not amount to great art. In that regard they are no different from most other identity-based art: topical, but hardly for the ages. Nevertheless, this is a worthwhile show that can be moving at times. Among the best works are those that relate to complexity of identity -- we are not just one or two things, but a combination of lots of things.

Helene Aylon's installation "The Liberation of G-d" contains multiple copies of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) with passages highlighted that offend her feminist and humanist sensibilities. Neil Goldberg's "Untitled" is a wall of hinged matzos with the names of 10 opportunistic AIDS infections superimposed. It's about AIDS, but also, as its label relates, a response to a Hasidic protest against Jews participating in a gay rally.

Despite some flaws, the exhibit laudably helps us all attain a fuller realization of our complexity. Each of us possesses a personal identity made up of many elements, and at the same time, we all belong to some sort of minority in this vast multicultural entity known as America.

`Too Jewish?'

Where: 10377 Reisterstown Road, in Garrison Forest Plaza

When: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sundays, Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays, 1 p.m.-9 p.m. Tuesdays, through June 29. Closed today and tomorrow for Passover, and June 11-12 for Shavuot.

Admission: $4 adults, free for children under 12

Call: 410-333-8600 (The Contemporary Museum) or 410-732-6400 (Jewish Museum of Maryland)

Pub Date: 4/28/97

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