Museums: "Belief" at CJM

There's a lovely new exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.  Entitled "Belief," the show is drawn entirely from SFMOMA's collection.  I happened to stumble into the Contemporary Jewish Museum on the first Tuesday of the month, otherwise known as "see art for free!" day.  This isn't an exhibition I could envision within the walls of SFMOMA, demonstrating that the museum's closure (see my previous post) is an excellent opportunity for its art to be seen and reinterpreted in new contexts.  Without descending into New Age schmaltz, this show hits all the right notes for a Bay Area audience. On view until October 27th, the exhibition is a visual journey into the spiritual aspects of language, ritual, presence, loss, and redemption across religious traditions.

Shahzia Sikander, Sinxay:  Narrative as Dissolution #2, 2008

As a writer, I had to start with this piece.  Sikander is a Pakistani-American artist that often works with language and the limitations of linguistics.  Here she has overlaid her experience of Islam with a Buddhist work.  The characters in her painting are from one of the national epic poems of Laos, a Buddhist text entitled Sinxay. Sikander allows the characters to alternately spiral into dense knot in the center of the paper and float away as petals at the edges.  The piece is shaped by her childhood in Pakistan reading the Koran "without really understanding it."  Here the act of memorization and oral repetition, although possibly leading to spiritual entanglement, is also revealed as an act of devotion with the potential for freedom.  

Zarina,  Tasbih, 2011

To my overwhelming excitement, I finally got to see Zarina's work in person for the first time. This piece is a huge wall sculpture of tasbih, or Muslim prayer beads, traditionally used to count the ninety-nine names of Allah.  Like Sikander's piece above, Zarina's work ties into childhood memories of the physicality of devotion.  This piece was inspired by Zarina's aunt; as a child Zarina restrung her aunt's prayer beads after they broke from use.  The beads are large, rough, and with gilt that appears to have been rubbed away through use.  Religious practice has almost been rendered three-dimensional through Zarina's art; it is a habit, a practice, a repetition that leaves a physical mark on its instrument.

Paul Klee, Ein Genius Serviert Ein Kleines Fruhstuck (A Spirit Serves a Little Breakfast), 1920

generally don't go for angels, but I was captivated by this small watercolor by Klee. It's as cute as all get-out ("A Spirit Serves a Little Breakfast"?!). But it also turns out Klee was part of Der Blaue Reiter, a group of German artists who sought to create a period of spiritual renewal through art.  My perception of art museums, based on experience, is that they're serious and occasionally shocking.  But despite our contemporary tendency to treat museums as cathedrals (see my previous post on art and religiosity) it's generally inappropriate to openly link art and viewer spirituality within museum walls.  The narrative of the world wars and the Holocaust surround the artists within this exhibit, of course, but a much different choice was made in telling the narratives of artists like Klee.

Agnes Martin, Falling Blue, 1963

Like Sikander and Zarina, Martin's work explores the act of devotion, the physical means through which spiritual philosophy is made real in the world.  The idea of detachment and the practice of quieting the mind were both central to Martin's artistic practice. From across the gallery her piece is a blue square painted on canvas that shimmers as though light is reflecting off water.  The photo above is a close-up of her work. Structured lines create the effect of her work, but within this structure the humanity of her lines and the touch of her hand is evident.   

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, "Untitled" (America #1), 1992

Near the end of the exhibition is this piece, created in memory of the artist's partner. Gonzalez-Torres himself passed away from complications of AIDS at the age of 38, and his later art is widely interpreted as exploring the process of dying. According to the artist's instructions, the owner of this piece has the choice to replace bulbs that burn out, introducing the possibility of hope and suggesting a cycle of loss and renewal.  Not only is the piece beautiful, but it also suggests that art is a spiritual practice allowing artists to retain their humanity through tragedy.  "Belief" is an exhibit that allows artists to reveal the religious practices informing the heart of their work, and for that unique fact alone is worth a trip to the CJM.