The Jewish Museum Inaugurates New Exhibition Series with Izhar Patkin, Now thru 11/11

Beginning today, September 14, 2012, The Jewish Museum will present Izhar Patkin: The Messiah's glAss, a new exhibition by celebrated New York-based, Israeli born artist, Izhar Patkin. This exhibition is the first in a new series in the second floor Offit Gallery presenting works by artists in all media, as well as installations of art and artifacts from the Museum's collection. The series will serve as a laboratory - a flexible and dynamic exhibition space that supports a broad range of artistic and cultural projects. The Jewish Museum's curators are planning three shows per year that will push an artist's work in new directions or advance new ideas about art and culture.

With The Messiah's glAss, Izhar Patkin frames two central narratives that serve as metaphors for each other. His innovative techniques and mastery as a visual narrator are brought to bear on these avenues of exploration. "One is the vanishing physicality of the image in our age of virtual transmission; the other is the diminishing weight of secular Zionism in contemporary Israel," Patkin explained. "The vaporous images in the scenic veil paintings have the weightlessness of a cinematic projected image. The promise of the canvas and the promise of the land are ghosts," Patkin added.

The exhibition consists of two major works. The first is You Tell Us What To Do Act III, a painting for four walls on pleated illusion (tulle) veils that envelop the entire perimeter of the ornate Offit Gallery like a continuous mural. The other is a 12-foot tall clear glass sculpture titled The Messiah's glAss, a figurative tour de force produced at the Centre International de Recherche Sur le Verre et les Arts Plastiques (CIRVA), Marseille, over a five year period from 2003 to 2007. Both the emblematic, transparent sculpture and the images in the translucent painting seem suspended like ghosts between appearance and disappearance, challenging conventions of art history. In Patkin's words: "Cinema and Duchamp changed everything in painting. When I was a student, Super-8 films, performance art, and the documentation of performance were the door out of the canvas ghetto. That door was very seductive. Today it's video, but I'm still in love with the promise of painting, and its object. For me, the curtain is a canvas. It's not meant to be a curtain over a window. It's meant to occupy the space of painting."

In the exhibition, Chief Curator Norman Kleeblatt noted, "The gossamer curtains are neither the 'window' of illusionistic painting nor the inviolable flat surface of the modernist canvas, nor the weightless screen of contemporary video art. The transparent, figurative glass of Patkin's sculpture contrasts with the solid bronze and marble of classical statuary as well as the dense industrial components of postwar abstract sculpture and the found materials common in sculpture today."

Patkin's translucent materials and associative narratives work together to convey a purposefully multifaceted encounter for the visitor. He creates ghostly dreamscapes in which histories, memories, and ideologies coalesce. The artist has said, "a ghost is essentially an unresolved or suspended emotion. It is not an abstraction or a representation of an emotion. It is a manifestation that questions its own presence. The role of the artist is to suspend ghosts." The images in the exhibition at The Jewish Museum encompass the ordinary and the historic, the personal and the global. Playing across the shirred veil surfaces are unknown figures and luminaries, vernacular and canonical architecture, landscapes and cityscapes, archival and invented elements.

When visitors enter the exhibition, they will find a story unfolding through a series of vaporous images that run across Patkin's veils like four cinematic scenes. On one wall Arabs clustered on a beach between Tel Aviv and Jaffa before 1948, a hybrid Bauhaus-Orientalist synagogue built by Patkin's great-grandfather in Netanya, and a boy on a donkey. In the foreground Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, presides over a stately European dining table. On the center wall the ship Altalena burns, destroyed in June 1948 in a confrontation between two branches of the nascent Israeli military. Before it, a desolate road leads to the Red Mountains of Jordan. A cart of antiquities thieves carrying busts of Roman emperors Tiberius and Caligula stands near a cruciform utility pole. The fourth wall is of a vacant beachfront. These images play hide-and-seek through the folds in the veils, offering impressions of fleeting, refracted forms.

The glass sculpture in the center of the gallery addresses the same foundational themes in allegorical terms. The decapitated head of a donkey lies atop a palanquin like the one that carried the biblical Ark of the Covenant. This table doubles as the animal's body-legs, tail, and testicles. The title of the work refers to a tradition originating in the Book of Zechariah, which prophesies that the Messiah will arrive riding a lowly ass (donkey). Parallel to Herzl's vision, at the turn of the twentieth century, the influential Zionist theologian Rabbi Abraham Kook used this image as a parable of the creation of the State of Israel. For him, the donkey represented the secular Jew whose material power and energy would make him the vehicle of God, creating the nation-state of Israel. This event in itself would correct the profane secularity of the age of modernist Enlightenment. Its rider was the religious Jew, who would eventually lead it. The theme has been invoked to justify a range of national and religious ideologies concerning righteousness, redemption, and liberation. The contemporary scholar Sefi Rachlevsky, tracing the history of the idea, uses the tale of the Messiah's Ass to argue that religious orthodoxy has overwhelmed secular Israel. In his 1998 best seller, The Messiah's Ass, he names Patkin's secular contemporaries the generation of the Messiah's Ass.

Patkin's metaphors respond to this layered, contentious narrative. In the sculpture the ass's head wears a crown made of donkey ears. Is it a pagan laurel wreath? A Torah crown? Is the donkey the artist himself? The imagery imprinted on the diaphanous veils and in the crystalline sculpture is thus freighted with biblical promises, Zionist aspirations, autobiographical allusions, and, not least, the realities of contemporary Israel.

Izhar Patkin: The Messiah's glAss has been organized by Norman Kleeblatt, The Jewish Museum's Susan and Elihu Rose Chief Curator.