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Kitsch Me Not

I dragged my feet about going to a trio of exhibitions with religious content, all three currently at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. The titles of the shows -- "Lesser Ury: Images from the Bible," "Modern and Contemporary Works from Private Israeli Collections," and "Psychic Landscapes: Paintings by Michal Sedaka" -- make them sound a bit on the dry and academic side. And maybe I balked after a lifetime of exposure to such kitsch as portraits of Jesus Christ with eyes that follow you around the room and countless garish variations on Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper.

The shows, however, turn out to be full of reminders of the diversity of art with religious overtones. Many of the works here draw as much on modernist traditions as on the classic religious art of the distant past.

The German Jew Lesser Ury, for instance, was such a restless visionary that much of his work is difficult to peg, although he's sometimes characterized (inadequately) as a sort of Germanic cousin of the French impressionists. He was born in 1861 and was living in the cultural hotbed of Berlin by the time he reached his teens, and before long, he had traveled to Antwerp, Brussels, and Paris, painting and drawing and studying along the way.

Ury ultimately rejected the academic, traditional art that was dominant at the time for a looser style. He chronicled the bustling city streets and other public spaces of Europe, as in the vibrant 1888 watercolor At the Friedrichstrasse Station. But he was equally capable of capturing quieter moments both urban and rural. The atmospheric oil Café Bauer (1906) features a solitary couple enjoying a drink on a terrace under a moonlit sky, and the trees in another oil, 1909's Sunset on Grunewald Lake, seem to have burst into flame as they soak up the day's last light.

One of the handouts for the show claims, however, that Ury's lasting claim may rest with his biblical paintings: "powerful images from the Old Testament that, as visual subject matter, began to forthrightly address the cultural, political and moral questions about Jewish existence in a modern society."

There's a poignancy that bears this out in Adam and Eve with their First-born, an 1896 oil in which the somber parents look almost shockingly modern as they sit huddled a few feet apart, Eve cradling the infant. They seem less than thrilled with their newborn son, as if he's an agonizing reminder of their fall and expulsion from paradise.

A similarly modern air permeates the large oil The Flood (1906), which, after many years of being labeled unsellable, was donated to Yeshiva University in New York City in 1975. The image consists of three highly muscled male nudes trying to escape the raging waters rising around them. Two cling to what looks like a massive boulder, while the other, who sprawls in the middle, has fallen back and struggles to regain his balance.

It's easy to see why a lot of people might be reluctant to have this monumental canvas hanging on their wall. The painting has some of the turbulent grandeur of Théodore Géricault's huge masterpiece The Raft of the Medusa, with its passengers also fighting to stave off a watery death. As with that painting, the bodies have an eerily erotic quality about them, even in their awkward, tortured postures. And in the Ury, the men's heads and faces have been twisted and distorted so dramatically that they almost seem as if they belong on other bodies altogether. Maybe Ury is commenting on the old mind/body duality and how painfully it might be articulated under such circumstances as those presented by the great flood. It's an extraordinarily powerful and disturbing painting.

The diversity of the Ury show is matched by that of "Modern and Contemporary Works from Private Israeli Collections," which includes more than 40 pieces by 11 artists.

The one-page handout for the exhibition emphasizes the stark realities faced by Israeli artists today: "In a land where economics and politics can hardly be separated, and where an art market for contemporary Israeli art struggles to barely exist, Israel is a country where art is not an important part of commercial life. Art remains a luxury, and 'nobody makes a living from their art, ever,' according to Ilan Wizgan, former Assistant Curator of Israeli Art at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. The result is that the artists in Israel speak mainly to themselves."

That internal dialogue is a fragmented, unsettled one, to judge from the works included here. There are some childlike doodlings that suggest a hermetic, arrested development, as well as some drab paintings of anonymous urban exteriors. A few oil canvases come across as halfhearted stabs at abstract expressionism.

But then there are the arresting photographs by an artist identified simply as Abe, who specializes in pairs of photos accompanied by Old Testament quotations that set up a link between them. In his "Dual Order" series, for example, he sets up two vaguely humanoid tree formations as stand-ins for the title characters in Adam and Eve, while in Nature Abuse, he juxtaposes the starburst form of a purple thistle blossom with a purple pipe fitting surrounded by dense foliage.

There's only one piece by Yemima Ergaz -- View of Jerusalem from the Supreme Court (Triptych) -- but it's an eye-opener. The catalog points out that older panoramas of the city were typically painted from the east, with an emphasis on Jerusalem's significance as a religious center. Ergaz, however, has chosen to present the city from the west, giving us "a completely secular perspective. It reflects the ongoing change of the urban structure."

Two artists -- Shlomi Haggai and Zeev Ben-Dor -- represent the volatile world in which Israelis (and by extension the rest of us) exist by resorting to unusual means of abstraction. Ben-Dor, a former Israeli Air Force pilot and now a commercial pilot for El Al, uses pale washes and scratches of mixed media on Masonite to create swirling dream imagery that, as he says, "depict[s] my feelings about the current 'situation' in Israel." The panels are unframed and mounted directly on the museum walls, which give them a greater immediacy.

There are three samples from Haggai's untitled "Film Stills Series," described by the artist as "based on enlarged sections of photographs or film frames, with images portraying blast centers, fire, debris..." Haggai blurs and distorts these "stills" -- the text doesn't indicate how, but the effects, especially in a fiery orange piece and a similarly intense red one, leave us to wonder what horrific sources might have evoked such imagery.

The show also includes three pieces by Meir Pichhadze, an Israeli who was born in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. Two are negligible portraits, although an oil called The Tree lives up to the artist's self-proclaimed influences, which include El Greco and Millet. With its strange pallet of sickly greens and yellows, it's a startling contrast to most of the rest of the pieces in this show and a pointed reminder of the continuity that runs from the art of yesterday through the art of today.

I'm running out of space, but it would be a serious oversight not to mention the Boca Museum's third current show, "Psychic Landscapes: Paintings by Michal Sedaka." The artist was born and educated in Israel (Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, respectively), and she now divides her work time between Tel Aviv and New York City, so technically she fits into the theme running through the museum's three shows.

In terms of technique, however, Sedaka tosses representational art out the window and opts for an approach to abstraction that catalog essayist Donald Kuspit calls "painterliness" as a way of characterizing art that's more emotionally expressive than the abstract expressionism of, say, Jackson Pollock and company.

I'm not a big fan of the sort of theorizing that Kuspit, a professor at State University of New York at Stony Brook and a widely published critic and scholar, indulges in. Nor am I a shill for exhibition catalogs. But in this case, Kuspit's commentary helps make sense of Sedaka's big, messy canvases -- there are only ten in the exhibition, all reproduced in the catalog -- and there are fascinating translations of the highly introspective, hand-lettered Hebrew texts that play a significant role in so many of these intensely expressive paintings.

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Michael Mills