SELECTED ART REVIEWS by Marcia Neblett
Marcia Neblett is on the faculty at the Savannah College of Art and Design. In commemoration of Yom HaShoah this month, she writes about her recent visit to the Florida Holocaust Museum.
Recently I traveled to the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg to see an art exhibition by Murray Zimiles, a painter and printmaker from New York. The exhibition features about 30 works by Zimiles on the theme of the Holocaust that were recently acquired by the museum. These works were created over a period of 14 years and vividly reflect the meaning of the Holocaust to the artist and his own personal loss from this most poignant event in human history.
As an art teacher, this exhibition made me realize how visual art can be a powerful tool for remembering the Holocaust. Art has the power to convey human horror in a single image. Look at Picasso’s painting, Guernica depicting the atrocities of war, or Kathe Kollowitz’s lithograph, Woman with Dead Child. A painting can make an impression in an instating with visual symbols that works would take longer to convey. When they say a picture is worth a thousand words, it’s true. Art has the ability to capture in a split moment, both the good and the bad, and in this particular case capture and reflect the horrors of this most heinous event in human history.
The Holocaust was an event that is unparalleled in human history for its utter dismissal of the value of human life. Just as it may be hard to grasp how a human beings could treat another without any trace of empathy or humanity, it was an event in history so well planned and executed that needs to be told again and again, lest we forget that something like this can ever happen again. The visual medium serves this purpose well.
Art of the Holocaust must therefore take on this same lasting necessity. The visual arts have unique components distinguishing them from other creative art forms like dance, music or writing. A "dash of expression" for instance, made via charcoal or pencil can be recorded and remembered forever. This physical and visible stroke is unique to the visual arts. There’s immediacy, directness and urgency to the graphic mark that conveys the spirit and emotion of the creator at the time.
In the works by Murray Zimiles that were on view at the Florida Holocaust Museum, one sees this powerful and physical mark-making that works well to convey the events of the Holocaust.
When I entered the exhibition, the large scale drawings drew me in immediately for their size. Drawings and mixed media works, like Aktion, Poland, 1939, and Fear, Panic and Surrender, interpreted the Holocaust in a relatively literal manner compared to works made later on. Like black and white film stills, their visual emphasis was on dramatic lighting and stark contrast, creating a powerful graphic impact. Smudging and blurring of the pencil medium suggested the effected of memory and time, while also adding a sense of movement.
Most astonishing of all in this exhibition was The Book of Fire. Murray Zimiles created this book to tell the story of the burning of the wooden Polish synagogues. He learned of their beauty and craft, the remarkable geometry and mythic spirituality they embodied, from a book published in Poland after the war. And along with that he came to know of the total and swift destruction by fire of these most beautiful and symbolic structures by the Nazi regime. His artist book is about these synagogues, and it is accordion format in style, a book that runs the entire length of the gallery. Each page is nearly 4x5 feet in size, the height of an adult human. Its stories of heroism and destruction are compelling and touching.
The journey through this exhibit for me, though painful, was rewarding. After I shed my own tears I came to a sobering point of seeing each work of art as a testament to the power of the human will to survive, and each of the pictures led me to a new understanding and sympathy.
Murray Zimiles recently retired as Professor of Art & Design at SUNY Purchase College in Westchester, NY, where he taught printmaking for 35 years. As a disclaimer, he was my professor at Purchase. Though he was my instructor, I still would have reviewed this show. Murray Zimiles now makes art full time and has had several solo art shows since his retirement. His works at the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg can be viewed by appointment.
The retrospective of Erik Desmazieres at The Jepson Center for the Arts is a selection of work consisting of twenty-nine prints made since 1974. It is an impressive range of etchings and mezzotints that depict idiosyncratic interiors, invented landscapes and strangely fantastic creatures.
Tastefully curated by Ms. Courtney McGowan, this show is his first in a US museum. Desmazieres, the son of a French Diplomat was born in Rabat, Morocco, in 1948. Today he stands in a class of his own as a master draftsman and self-taught artist whose work reflects a lifelong dedication to the medium of printmaking. The prints on display at the Jepson share the depth and range of Desmazieres’ etching technique. The etchings are realized in the style of the 17th and 18th century Dutch and Italian prints. Like Rembrandt, Piranesi and other masters of the etching medium, these prints are beautifully rendered and superbly crafted. Dezmazieres’ etchings are at once shockingly strange and profoundly realistic, revealing a calculated understanding of interior structures of the real and imagined.
Cabinet of Curiosities II (1998), an etching with aquatint, depicts a large room that appears to recede endlessly. Lining the walls, the floors, and the ceiling are artifacts from Egyptian times to the present. Like a fun house of mirrors, space repeats itself, folding in and out and receding deep into the background. There are long, freeze-dried eels hanging from the ceiling, sea horses and birds, which stand twice as tall as humans. A life monkey peers up at a standing mummy behind which one finds a strange human grotesque in the center with se shells for eyes and twisted ribbons for legs. Even the borders framing this print are decorated with constellation of interiors that include anatomical casts of surface and interior muscles of man, and organs partially uncovered by flaps of muscle and tissue.
The Great Battle II (1978), and The Pier (1974), are fantasy-scapes, representing Desmazieres imaging at its best. The battle print evokes a sense of wander and foreboding awareness – a harbinger of a galactic war, where floating wooden boasts navigate through a sky thousands of feet above ground level. These flying boats seem to hover in the sky like weightless clouds while hundreds of warriors below wait for the call to charge.
In The Pier (1974), two lone gondolas sit by the water’s edge, uninhabited and vacant, evoking
a feeling that is simultaneously either eerie or pleasant depending on how one feel about empty spaces. Desmazieres evokes similar sentiment in his other works including, Rene Taze’s Studio VI (1993), and the Deserted Fortress II (1979). The Salle LaBrouste of the Bibliotheque Nationale (2001), depicts a library room with people hunched over books at long tables and busy workers shelving books. In this print animate and inanimate objects are equally rendered lifeless. Desmazieres library workers walk and sit alone (and immediately another reference comes to mind – that of George Tooker’s paintings depicting crowded places where no one talks, speaks or seems to be aware of one another). The figures in Desmazieres’ library prints, like this one, are so mechanical and detached, that they seem to suggest that repetitive work, as in the shelving of books, reduces us to creatures of habit without purpose. This leads us to wander if habit is, however, always such a bad thing. The nature of habit allows up to exist, to hold jobs, and often to do things that seem pointless and yet the serve the needs of survival. It is creativity driven by the engine of habit that has enables Desmazieres to complete these twenty nine ambitious prints.
Desmazieres’ prints are rendered with obsessive and calculating detail In The Salle LaBrouste of the Bibliothecque Nationale (2001), he had the patience to draw, and then to etch, 5,000 plus little books. The pains-taking attention to detail appears to hold time still. It is a Zen practice that absorbs the subject and the object, the creator and the created, the artist and the art into a unitary continuum of space and time.
The French Philosopher, Gaston Bachelard, wrote in The Poetics of Space, that “The house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.” In a similar vain, Desmazieres’ spaces, whether interiors or exteriors, seem to serve as mental wormholes shortening the distance in a dream space.
Erik Desmazières: Constructs and Inventions is on view at The Jepson Center for the Arts until October 26th. Marcia Neblett teaches at the Savannah College of Art and Design. She is a printmaker.
“Desert Jewels” on view at SCAD’s Pei Ling Chan Gallery gives us a rare glimpse of some of the finest jewelry and photography from Mr. Xavier Guerrand-Hermes’ collection. Organized by the Museum for African Art in New York City, this collection traveled to the Smithsonian before coming to the Savannah College of Art and Design. Mr. Guerrand-Heremes is known for his impeccable designs in jewelry, leatherwork, textiles and clothing. While living in Morocco, Mr. Guerrand-Hermes developed an appreciation for the culture and arts of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. He began collecting fine examples of jewelry and photography from the region.
Approximately 80 objects in this exhibition show off exquisite design and exceptional craftsmanship of North African Jewelry. Also on view are 27 exemplary photographs by some of the leading European photographers of the day (Pascal Sebah and George Washington Wilson). They provide a context for this exhibit by revealing how the woman and men wore the jewelry. Jewelry was often given to women by their husbands as a symbolic expression of status and identity. The objects often feel personal because they were worm on the bodies of women; held, touched and valued. The pieces in this exhibition range from necklaces that announced wedding engagements to spiked black bracelets once used in war fare.
One thing interesting about North African jewelry is the exchange of ideas and materials that occurred because of the geographic locations of these regions. Most jewelers in the North African regions were itinerant Imagziighen or Jewish Artists who had emigrated from the Middle East. They brought with them Spanish and Moorish Styles and craftsmanship, in particularly niello, filigree, enameling and the art of bezel setting. Enamel techniques, like cloisonné (which involved pouring powdered glass, diluted on by a master smith and practiced in a workshop. To do this required time, patience and practice.There are many examples in this show worth mentioning. The Moroccan “Necklace and Beads” (Taggermont) is an extremely colorful and imaginative piece with a range of materials from shell and wool to stone and enamel. Other pieces like the Algerian “Large Bracelet” are regal in design. “Cross Amulet”, a Moroccan, early 20th century pendant made by the Amazigh people, is probably the most powerful in the show. Hanging on black leather strands offset by fringes, this large silver bos, shaped like a cross, has studs on all ends. This piece seemed to speak to me, and ironically I learned that pendants like this one were said to have contained either magical numbers or inscriptions serving to protect against evil. As SCAD’s Senior Curator, Melissa Messina said,, “I am a fan of the Cross Amulet for it’s amazing combination of masculine and feminine characteristics.”The signature piece of this exhibition is “Fibula (Tabzimt)”. This “Fibula” – not to be confused with the anatomical part of the body – is an ornamental pin that fastens caps and shawls. Seen in person, Fibula is bold in design and vibrant in color. It is absolutely regal and unforgettable.
Photography deserves mention here and the wonderful array of images gives us a window into the 19th and 20th century life. J. Sabah’s “Market at Ghezzieh” depicts an aerial view of a dusty hot market place in Ghezzieh, Egypt. Nearly a hundred people in robes and turbans are seen trading resting or standing nearly their camels loaded with goods. It is a lively place to be.
Two things occur to me when looking at this show: the first is the impressive scale of the jewelry.
When I walked in the exhibit I was struck by the large size of the jewelry. Several necklaces appeared to be 40 inches or more form end to end; the amber golden beads were the size of prunes and the cloisonné beads, the size of lemons. The power of these symbolic necklaces was obvious. But I also wandered how women could comfortably wear this jewelry. Then the second idea came to me, and that was the idea of time.
I can help but wonder, if nineteenth century North African artist had Facebook, Twitter, and the Internet, would they have taken the time to produce such carefully crafted jewelry? If Blackberry phones were ringing in the midst of their jewelry workshops, could have finished their work? Contemporary life doesn’t allow us much time anymore.
In the end, “Desert Jewels” is an inspiring collection of what can be done if contemporary artists put time, patience and craft into their work.
Desert Jewels is on view at the Pei Ling Chan, Gallery through June 19. Marcia Neblett teaches in Foundations at the Savannah College of Art and Design. She has traveled to North Africa and India.