By Dan Gunn
“The New Authentics: Artists of the Post-Jewish Generation” at the re-vamped Spertus Museum is truly an ambitious inaugural effort. The exhibition is Staci Boris’ first as head Spertus Museum curator, a fifteen-year veteran of the MCA. “The New Authentics” christens a glistening new art space within the Spertus Institute. For the show Ms. Boris has assembled a diverse group of artists such as sculptor David Altmejd, Canada’s representative at the 2007 Venice Biennale, noted photographer Collier Schorr and Chicago artists such as Mindy Rose Schwartz and painter Matthew Girson.
Each of the artists possesses a unique perspective on Jewish identity. For example, painter Laura Kina is a convert to Judaism and a Japanese and Spanish American, Korean-born Jin Meyerson was adopted into a Jewish household and Shoshana Weinberger, of dual Caribbean and Jewish descent, self-identifies as a “Jamaican Jew.” Ms. Boris explains that for each artist, their “Jewish identity isn’t the central subject matter of the artwork, but the subjects they are dealing with are seen from a perspective that is informed by their negotiation of Jewish identity.” Not only are their lives crafted by an experience of Jewishness but they in turn by their choices, values and lives change what it means to be Jewish. “I think each individual artist has their own perspective and however they engage with Jewishness defines [the Jewish] perspective.” This is essentially why the generation earns the name post-Jewish. It’s not that the artists are somehow “after” Jewishness, but that they participate consciously in the evolution of Jewishness.
“The New Authentics” is a case study in ethnic, social and religious hybridity. The show highlights lived experience as the crux where ethnic affiliations are tested. Several artists in the show deal with the home as a place of social formation. Jennifer Zackin and Sanford Biggers present their two-channel video piece in a 1970s-style wood-paneled living room complete with a comfy sofa. Consisting of the two artists’ childhood home movies set side by side, Zackin, from an East Coast suburban Jewish family, and Biggers, from a West Coast African-American family, experience the same activities. Each family takes trips to Disneyland, throws birthday parties and provides their children with piano lessons. These two artists share an American identity, an affiliation that gets played out in mass cultural consumer traditions. For Ms. Boris, Jewish Americans display “a clear desire to remain different or to promote difference, but at other times they can just blend in and be a part of the American culture.” This type of cultural ambiguity drives one to create a new category, one unique to the individual. Ethnicity seen in this way is fluid and only the individual can decide what parts to keep and what parts to give away.
Other works negotiate with history through the home as well, such as Mindy Rose Schwartz’s macramé, ceramic and found-object sculpture, “Untitled (The River).” Reaching to the ceiling with macramé and engulfing ceramic trees, wooden block sculptures and an aluminum table on the way, Schwartz’s work calls to mind the tacky but beautiful post-Baby Boomer world of political and social upheaval. Clearly it was an era in which identity was anything but stable. Fawn Krieger’s cartoonish ink-jet prints of foods outside of Kosher rules demonstrate the perspective of another generation’s quizzical gaze on the previous one’s customs. These works remind us that everyone is a hybrid on some level, and whether or not they are Jewish, they can find a kindred spirit amongst the New Authentics.
The process of forming an identity is not without a price, however. The struggle to choose an identity is embodied in Joel Tauber’s provocative videos. Tauber uses an almost mystical brand of conceptualism in combination with a healthy dose of self-deprecation to create situations that stress the importance of striving. For the Spertus, Mr. Tauber filmed himself while he dug holes in the ground and buried himself inside. This repeated action is an attempt to develop a ritual. Each try is fraught with failure and frequently re-thought, but with each new set of problems he is confronted with the meaninglessness of digging the hole again. Mr. Tauber’s words tell the story. His plaintive narration to the camera displays his frustration with the activity. “What am I supposed to do?” “I just wish it was easier.” This affecting work demonstrates the stakes of identity as an important component in the exhibition.
If the experience of contemporary Jewishness is free of ethnic and religious determination, as this exhibition of post-Jewishness asserts, then the Spertus Institute has some questions to confront as it develops its future programming. Perhaps it is well on its way to facilitating a larger cultural exchange beyond Jewishness, an exchange where authenticity is at stake.
“The New Authentics: Artists of the Post-Jewish Generation” shows at The Spertus Institute, 610 South Michigan, (312)322-1700, through April 13.