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November 20, 2017 2:47 pm

A Contemporary Renaissance for Jewish Art

avatar by Rachel Soussan

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A piece of art by Sam Griffin. Photo: Provided.

Every year, the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem hosts an open house, where the entire building is transformed into a platform for that year’s graduates to exhibit their best works.

From ceramics and video art, to painting and performance art, months of preparation are involved in tearing down and building up the walls of the Mount Scopus campus, creating ad hoc studio spaces for young talent. The event is open to the public — and budding artists hope that their work — the result of four years of developing skills and concepts — will catch the eyes of visiting art enthusiasts.

In Israel and across the world, there seems to be a cultural renaissance happening among young Jewish artists.

Take the music industry, for example; not only are religious Jewish artists becoming contemporary contenders in the secular music scene, but more and more young Jewish musicians are developing their own genre by creating authentic Jewish music that is infused with traditional instruments, religious messages and ancient melodies.

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The same, says Bezalel graduate Sam Griffin, is happening in the Fine Art world.

As one of the few outwardly religious Jews in what is considered a relatively left wing, liberal environment, the subject of Griffin’s final year exhibition was somewhat controversial: In a small whitewashed, neon-lit underground space, he showed a series of large oil-on-canvas paintings depicting the daily ritual of male mikveh immersion.

“It seems that until very recently, being a religious Jewish artist was considered taboo; the only way a religious artist was accepted was by portraying a romanticized version of shtetl life,” he says.

Emphasizing his point, Griffin recalls participating in a Biennale taster exhibition last summer, which included Haredi artists who did not sign their works, wishing to remain anonymous. This was done to make a clear distinction between their religious life and their artistic interests.

“When subscribing to a particular lifestyle, the religious artist finds himself in a predicament,” Griffin notes. He says that, “traditionally, art has always been about pushing boundaries and challenging the status quo. It’s often about provocation; at the very least, artists critique their environment through their works.” Religion, on the other hand, does not view challenging authority as a positive thing.

As an artist, Griffin hopes to move away from the stereotypes of religious art by describing his personal religious experience in a way that is neither romanticized nor derogatory.

“It took me a while to navigate through my own narrative — to find subjects that I feel are both interesting and relevant,” says Griffin. “I grew up in an entirely secular environment, and developed my religious identity after I moved to Israel in my twenties. I went from smoking cigarettes in an atelier of an art college in Cyprus, to growing a beard, studying in a yeshiva and joining the IDF. The shift was huge, but it has given me an advantage, as an artist, to be able to perceive and describe things from so many angles.”

This dichotomy is what ultimately inspired Griffin to portray his new world through an old lens, gaining him recognition and acclaim.

After participating in an art collective at the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, The Jerusalem Post wrote a feature on the young London-born artist, focusing on the technique through which his pieces come to life. Griffin applies thick layers of paint and then uses a rag to etch away the images, leaving behind abstract suggestions of religious practice as he sees it. The challenge, he says, is portraying the nuances of Jewish life without falling into the trap of making them kitsch.

The mikvah series is bold, depicting blurry images of naked men in their most vulnerable state — preparing for the daily purification before the morning prayer. Yet despite the delicacy of the subject, the artists’s delivery is both sensitive and mystifying. It’s as if Griffin allows the viewer a glimpse into a hidden world, through the prism of his own experience.

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