A Case of daunting visual Yiddishkeit

An important art exhibit is currently being hosting by the Jerusalem branch of the AACI, The Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel. While this blog has ordinarily deconstructed verbal expression, I would be amiss not to draw attention to Chanan Mazel’s visually communicated statements on Yiddishkeit. I would be erroneous in fulfilling my charge to discuss Judaism, if I failed to urge readers to see the Pattern and Perspective show, of which Mazel’s work is a part.
Whereas his co-exhibitor, Ron Gang, similarly, creates breathtaking two dimensional paintings, and whereas Gang’s studies of the trees of Eretz Yisrael merit, in their own right, that we spend time at the AACI show, it is Chanan Mazel’s mastery of form and of color, Mazel’s energetic, decorative pieces, which brings us Jews home again.
(Chinese Vases)
Mazel’s palette of bright hues, none of which are muddied by tertiary gradations, call up seasonal and geographic references to the Yiddishe psyche. These images, composed of assemblages of smaller pieces, fluidly morph from man made geometries to forms crafted by G-d. Even the gashmius of expensive vessels, left in Mazel’s hands, changes smoothly into the ruchnious of vegetation fashioned on the third day of Creation
Mazel writes that he lives “suspended between the twin towers of two languages and two cultures [and that his art] straddle[s] two competing worlds: [his] ideological, religious and family commitments on one hand, and the demands for openness and unbridled imagination in art. L’Art pour l’art,” on the other hand, simultaneously pull him. It is this consequent bridge, which Mazel builds, that makes his creativity invaluable to all of us.
(Which Tablecloth?)
He fills bowls with fruit, for instance, in one piece, but his basins are not haphazardly loaded with seemingly random elements of a still life. Rather, his vessels contain the Shiv''at HaMinim, the two grains and five fruits, the Seven Species, listed in Torah. His is the work of Jewishness.
In another beautiful representation, he shows us pomegranates from various vantage points, and thus teaches us that the Jewish mystical experience can, and ought to be, explored from multiple points of view. As Mazel states in his “Art Studio Update,” he uses “the power or delicacy of pattern, to counterbalance [his, and by dint of extension, our] coarse execut[ion] of earlier layers; to correct … deliberately imperfect compositions, and to make peace with warring colors[, to] thoughtfully and joyfully, build up [a] painting to that moment of equilibrium.” This master’s work instructs us to be open-minded, to accept each other, to strive for achdut, and to reach for a unity that transcends elements’/our people’s particulars, in order to construct a more magnificent whole.
(Bronx Oranges)
Mazel’s “exploring ornament and surface tension” feels “very ‘Israeli’” to him, despite the fact that “the colors and aesthetics, the subject matter [are] not outwardly ‘Zionist,’” and despite the fact that he avoids “‘plakaat’- type [i.e. ‘poster’ or ‘placard’-type] messages.” In electing to employ vivid color, rather than blank or relatively pale/less ornate canvas to create “negative space,” loci where certain properties common to the rest of a composition are missing, this artist urges viewers to rethink the meaning of visual growth and diminution. He paints the sentiment of gam zu l’tovah. He reminds us that just as we embrace all four of the species on Sukkot, so, too, must we embrace all Jews, no matter their strengths or deficits.
Yet, what grabs exhibit goers’ attention most, among the qualities of Mazel’s work, is not his purposeful selection of acrylics over oils, nor the ability of his art to give us easy access to historical themes, but rather his bravery of discourse. The lines of Mazel’s paintings are clean, well defined. Their repetitive combinations, their introduction of pattern on pattern, and of pattern on solids, in turn, like dove feathers, like hedgehog quills, and like deciduous leaves’ veins, promote not only the need to escape materialism, but also the need to rise beyond “spiritual” measures that anchor us in false limits.  To me, Mazel’s art speaks of the Klal’s need for totality. Mazel, himself, says in “Israeli Art on the Shrink’s Couch,” “Pride and shame are by definition… attributes of social standing…. Admitting guilt can be cathartic. One can even brag about feeling guilty.” Whereas we probably ought not to perpetuate cultural neuroses, we can benefit from celebrating our obligation to all twelve of our tribes.
Mazel claims that his artistic vision, his hand up to the rest of us, grew from a variety of forces. In “Reclaiming National Identity,” he writes, "Israeli literature always had the Hebrew language to keep it “parochial” even when exploring the most modern of structures. Thus it was, and is distinct, never truly cosmopolitan. The Tanakh and traditional texts invade even the most militantly secular street language.
"The plastic arts are more problematic in this context. The self accepting, self embracing maturity that is reaching music, is still not felt in painting and sculpture. I have often wondered why there is this discrepancy, and have two possible answers: the first lies in the absence of a true Jewish visual tradition, on which Israeli artists can build…. The second possibility, is the pseudo elitist self image, that painters and sculptors, collectors and especially curators, have of themselves…. democratization has not happen in the art world."
I suspect there’s something more magnificent at play here, nonetheless. Sure, we can appreciate Mazel''s art for its pulsing beauty in the same way that we value a lion sleeping, a stream flowing, or clouds trafficking the heavens. In any rhythmic moment, in which discordant elements are preserved again and again by concord, there is awe. However, I suspect neither social strain nor instinctive wonderment, solely, makes Mazel’s work so astounding. Rather, I think Chanah Mazel’s genius comes from his allowing himself to be powered by his pintela Yid.
The AACI Pattern and Perspective show runs through April 5, Sundays –Thursdays, 8:30 am-5:30 pm, and select evenings. Call 02-566-1181 for details.