Superman in Exile, 2013

The Art of Joel Silverstein

Joel Silverstein’s works represent a contemporary look at the visual tradition of the epic and the evocation of the sacred. The artist’s family, friends and other autobiographical material are the inspiration for a complex Magic Realism. This creates an overlapping sense of myth derived from such diverse sources as dreams, cinema, Old Master painting, photography and comic books. European painting and especially Expressionism are the initial models, contrasted with the use of postmodern storytelling techniques. This clash creates waves of hot and cool contrast: description and transparency denoting realism paired with patent disjunction, disruption and visual anomaly evoking collage. There are things that fit into the narrative and those that do not.

Silverstein was born in Brooklyn New York, near Coney Island. The strange environment of Brighton Beach with its ruined amusement rides and multitudes of observant Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, secular Russian immigrants, Italian-Americans, African-Americans, Hispanics and Pakistani Muslims presented an early primer on multiculturalism and religious experience. His own religious training as a Reform/Conservative Jew began with an early viewing of Cecil B. De Mille’s The Ten Commandments; a life changing cinematic theophany at the age of six. Couple this with personal experiences of local Holocaust survivors, many living in Brighton during the 1970s and you have the makings of a heady but nascent mysticism. Brighton Beach becomes the place of the Exodus and the Revelation; a zone where the secular and sacred, old and new collide to make new worlds. Brooklyn is as visually important to Silverstein as Vitebsk, Russia is to the work of Mark Chagall, or Figueres, Spain to Salvatore Dali.

During the 1980s the artist R.B. Kitaj called for a Jewish Art in his essay, The Second Diasporist Manifesto. The question of “Jewish Art” is one which has preoccupied Mr. Silverstein for many years. Kitaj felt that Jewish Art existed because in effect “he said so. “ Like Kitaj, Silverstein agrees with this statement in the face of anti-Semitism. However if Judaism is merely a religion, the concept of “Jewish Art” is a difficult if not untenable one. If Judaism is a culture, a people and perhaps a civilization, then Jewish Art is not an anomaly but a necessity. Mr. Silverstein is currently Senior Curator for the Jewish Art Salon, a New York based organization of over 200 Jewish art professionals including: artists, art historians and art writers.

The Artist often consults sacred texts and Jewish writings in addition to employing visual motifs familiar to Western Art. In The Golden Calf, 1999 the artist uses “Oriental” figures culled from children’s bibles, interspersed with actual bathers from Brighton Beach. The composition directly recalls the biblical subject by the French Classicist, Nicholas Poussin. As the bathers vary to include Brooklyn local residents of color, it assails Ashkenazic presumptions of racial purity. This highlights the actual diversity of the Jewish community and in addition is a visual depiction of the concept that all people are the “Children of Abraham.” The figure of Moses is based on the actor Charlton Heston from the previously cited movie, while the bodyguard covering him is an ample adolescent female brandishing a squirt gun.

Another painting is called Brighton Beach Exodus, 2008. This ten foot work is a culminating effort, synthesizing 19th Century and Renaissance techniques in a frankly contemporary setting. Brighton in all its ersatz Impressionist glory is again Egypt, the wilderness of Sinai and the shores of the Red Sea. The figures are derived from posed models, photos and toy action figures. Each aspect of the Exodus narrative is symbolized. Moses destroys the Egyptian overseer with a mere hand gesture. Moses’ own headless torso is the model for the Egyptian. In a passage taken from the Babylonian Talmud, the hero kills the overseer with the power of a sacred word, not by strangling as depicted in the De Mille movie. Depicted figures are watching these miraculous events or are strangely oblivious to them. The structure of the narrative reverses Renaissance Neo-platonic order, as the sacred drama occurs at the bottom of the painting. The biblical subjects of Jean- Baptist Camille Corot (1796-1875) are a large influence here, because these particular works were constructed in an age of growing secular skepticism. Like Corot, Silverstein has to re-invent or re-invoke the sacred for people who fail to believe in miracles.

Many works reference sacred and profane history. Superman in Exile, 2013 is an 18 foot mural, part of an exhibition held at Pratt Institute in 2014 called Jo-El/Jore-El; Superheroes, Autobiography and Religion. This group of works accessed the history and myth of Superman and other superheroes in paintings of the artist and his family. By presenting ideas about the self and the heroism of daily life, the artist reflected upon the postmodern apocalyptic writings of the German-Jewish author Walter Benjamin. This large work, reminiscent of mid-century Technicolor movies shows Superman, as portrayed by TV stalwart George Reeves confronting the grim the horrors of the Holocaust as represented by two large burning crematoria. To the left, the artist and his wife look on under the “F” Line elevated train in Brooklyn, while to the right, the magician Harry Houdini squirms to escape his Chinese Water Torture cell among the tombstones of a cemetery in the artist’s home town of Mahwah NJ. Time and distance are blurred for narrative effect. The necessity of the incomplete hero confronting the horrors of the modern world is a prerequisite for picturing a new and complex sacred reality.

In Pardes, (Altar to My Father) 2012, the artist paints a portrait of the elder Mr. Silverstein at the age of 85, shortly before his death. The difficulties of life and fear of death as manifest in his expression is greatly evident, as is the emotional empathy felt by the artist. Background compositional elements taken from the Amsterdam Haggadah, an Eighteenth Century text are collaged around the main figure. Almost medieval in nature, these wood engravings lend an august mood of judgment, foreboding and perhaps ultimate redemption. The term “Pardes” is an acronym created by the Rabbis, representing the four traditional levels of Toratic and Midrashic interpretation. As an allegory it represents a parable whereby 4 Rabbis enter the Sacred Grove (Paradise). The first dies, the second goes insane, third become an apostate philosopher and the fourth, Rabbi Akiba goes in peace. Only Akiba represents the model of spiritual and worldly integration worthy of each of us.

Even as we strive to define the art of our time, cultural identity, religion and history are being reinvented. The artist seeks to map the territory of his own life while the past and present meld together in a vast panoply of vision. Silverstein recalls the epic but in a new way; with faults and frailties, a bold re-vamping of traditional Expressionism served for a new purpose. There is a child-like innocence rammed against the self-confessional and knowing acumen of middle -age. As the viewer is encouraged to remember sacred and secular history, world events, the Bible, movies, comics and toys; art looms as a creative force. Joel Silverstein reminds us that there is always something more to perception, memory and imagination than we could ever suppose.