Friday, April 19, 2024

‘History Becomes Memory’ at Boca Museum

The Boca Raton Museum of Art is currently marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust with one of its most ambitious exhibitions in recent memory: a six-pronged examination of intolerance, apartheid, genocide and, finally, hope and progress whose reach spans from the expulsion of the Jews from 15th century Spain to the formation of the state of Israel.

Titled “History Becomes Memory,” the exhibition is bracketed by its two most inspirational—and, it must be said, least compelling—elements, while its middle portion does the heavy dramatic lifting. The work of these four middle artists sobers and devastates, leaving attendees shaken and more than a little uncomfortable. It’s rare for art to have such a visceral impact while still engaging museumgoers intellectually, but these artists thread that needle, stimulating our brains while punching us in the gut.

The exhibition starts with the gentle paintings of the 20th century watercolorist Samuel Rothbort, who fled the pogroms of czarist Russia for the friendlier climes of New York City in 1904. His idyllic scenes of family life and childhood reveries in the Russian shtetls idealize memories that probably never existed. Evidence of ethnic cleansing is absent from this prolific series, where the only conflict involves fighting over a shofar or swatting at bedbugs. His work is painted as if from a child’s perspective, and like a Semitic Norman Rockwell, his images could just as easily appear on plates as gallery walls.

If Rothbort found solace and resolve in avoidance and pastoral fantasy, the next artists in the exhibition cope with tragedy by confronting it directly, none better than Shimon Attie. While living in Berlin in the 1990s, this contemporary artist used the urban streets as his canvas. He projected images from the city’s decimated Jewish history onto the modern buildings where Jews, and their kosher businesses, might have once stood. The past and present overlap poignantly in the Boca Museum’s images from this project, the vintage photographs covering today’s building facades like surreal wallpaper. Rag-clothed figures haunt their former workplaces and domiciles, forcing us to never forget.

In “The Neighbor Next Door,” a site-specific addition to the photographs, Attie places visitors in the position of Jews in hiding, forcing us to squat to view images of marching Nazis and other threatening projections through tiny peepholes. This experiential exhibit replicates the fear and paranoia inherent in Jewish life in Nazi Germany.

Smartly held over from its previous Izhar Patkin exhibition, the artist’s sprawling, room-sized veil “You Tell Us What to Do,” features vintage and more recent photographs reappropriated on shimmering, dreamlike tulle fabric, their Israeli and Arab subjects mingling uneasily on the border between Tel Aviv and the old city of Jaffa. A boat at sea billows black smoke in the background as historical figures mount a makeshift synagogue in one corner of the fabric; in other portions, early settlers arrive on land on a giant, incongruous boat, while wrecking ball-wielding cranes share space with camels and fleeing Palestinians. Tellingly, two segments of the veil are empty of people, suggesting a possible future of this multicultural cradle, reduced by conflict to an existential void.

The most disquieting, even physically upsetting work in the exhibition is Terry Berkowitz’s “Veil of Memory/Prologue: The Last Supper,” which imagines the final meal offered to Jews prior to their expulsion from Spain and the horrors of the Inquisition. Scarred, splintery, medieval wooden tables and benches (on which attendees are encouraged to sit) are arranged in the gallery in the shape of a cross and topped with empty bowls and wooden spoons. Excerpts from the Edict of Expulsion pipe through speakers in English and 15th century Castilian Spanish, while massive images projected onto the walls show a blurry huddle of Jews herded away. This combination of touch, sight and sound is one I won’t soon forget.

Two works by French artist Christian Boltanski were late additions to the show, but they indispenably echo the themes. The best of them features isolated, blown-up images of children from a Purim party snapshot, circa 1939. Boltanski presents them in the formation of pyramid-shaped altar illuminated by lights suggesting yahrzeit candles and mounted atop biscuit tins containing what is said to be shreds of their clothing. They could be images of missing children from old milk cartons if they didn’t already resemble faces already in mortem, with black chasms for eyes. The horror of this haunting tribute resonates through the decades.

“History Becomes Memory” concludes with the Berlin duo Renata Stih and Frieder Schnock’’s “Rosie Won the War,” a world-premiere commission from the Boca Museum. Inspired by the iconic WWII agitprop of Rosie the Riveter, “Rosie Won the War” features photographs of modern women—the Rosies of today—standing like towering sentinels over topographical images of occupied territories. Stih and Schnock’s ethnically diverse models, dressed for manual labor and brandishing pitchforks, shears, cleavers, hammers and other tools of their trade, speak to the unshackled woman then and now. The work is progressive and well intentioned, but following the gasp-worthy power of the previous artists, it feels a bit out of place—a dense concept that feels too simple, a one-trick idea repeated with little variation.

The best example of Stih and Schnock’s work hangs in the entryway to their gallery: a series of dangling banners broadcasting a few of the countless prohibitions leveled against Jews in the lead-up to the Holocaust, ranging from the blatantly cruel (Jews cannot join sports organizations or purchase soap or shaving cream) to the bizarre (“All Jews must adopt the names of ‘Israel’ for men and ‘Sara’ for woman as additional first names”). These are just a few of the thousand little cuts that preceded the Final Solution, and like the finest work in this essential exhibition, they provide new insight into a sadly familiar global tragedy, serving as both reminder and revelation.

“History Becomes Memory” runs through Jan. 1 at Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Boca Raton. Admission is $12 adults, $10 seniors. Call 561/392-2500 or visit bocamuseum.org.

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