Lynn Russell’s current exhibition at the Chassidic Art Institute challenges us with a piety that resists all easy answers. First there are the Baruch HaShem pieces, highly unusual collaged texts combining letters, images and objects that somehow lead us to the painted and altered photographs of Jewish life, finally guiding us to her signature image, “One Way.” Exactly where is the artist taking us?
In 2006 Lynn Russell created a petite series of collages that explored variations on the common phrase of Orthodox piety, “Baruch HaShem.” She was interested in how this commonplace utterance could find itself visually in diverse contexts. We see the letters initially on a box of matches, a paper cookie, a discarded piece of cardboard and finally a box of Gefen Lemon Extract. On the most banal material the letters, each salvaged from a unique source, take on a kind of visual poetry of their own while on the more recognizable host they battle for recognition, tending to obscure and bully the everyday object. In her use of these commonplace objects as the foundation and foil for the expression of thanks, Russell manages to illuminate Yiddishkeit with a Pop sensibility, somehow grounding the expression of acceptance and gratitude with the nitty gritty of everyday life.
As we see her series develop the material becomes more complex, moving first into Russell’s familiar terrain of the photographic image. Bus Lane captures an image of speed and danger in a night scene that suggests that a vehicle has just whizzed by on a busy city street, narrowly missing the viewer (or the viewer just missing the bus) and eliciting the bold asymmetrical collaged response of “Baruch HaShem!” She next explores the varieties of newsprint, the very elemental stuff of letters, here the text pasted over an everyday automobile advertisement.
Finally her vision fixates on an ultimate manipulation of image and text in Baruch HaShem. She has photographed a collage of the text with each letter seeming to take on a life of its own. There are swatches of colored paper and traces of other collage material, all composed with more of an eye to rearrange the text rather than elucidate it. But the surprise is that now Russell has photographed the original collage and painted in oils on top of it, adding yet another level of visual complexity. The final effect is of an integrated painting; viscous, deep and personal, even though the artwork is neither totally painting, or photograph or collage.
Lynn Russell’s next set of images returns to works we are more familiar with from her earlier exhibitions, the manipulated photograph or Xerox print. Here however she starts out with a very limited palette, exclusively black and white. The first two images are immersed in celebration taken from a wedding; a kallah posing in front of a screen and a group of Hasidic men dancing. But simple documents they are not.
Kallahis a visual conundrum. Practically the entire scene has been appropriated by Russell and the photographic backdrop a mere pretext for visual fireworks, a virtuosic calligraphic feast that squiggles, and decorates a Matisse inspired tableau centered on the bride’s happy face. Her moment of marital joy has become an occasion for the artist’s joy.
Similarly the dancers in Mazel Tov celebrate with the chassan, clad in a white kittel, but here seem to be black-hatted actors in another more ominous drama. The environment is super-charged with agitated lines that generate an uneasy tension and the chassan suddenly seems vulnerable and alienated from the revelers.
Her next set of images are even more radically rendered in black and white. Four stark images of men; each individual virtually anonymous because of the radical nature of Russell’s copying, enlarging, rephotographing, and copying until she has transformed the original image into her own vision. They are ciphers of religious men engaged in otherworldly pursuits, removed from the world by the very nature of the artist’s manipulation. In a startling way these black and white images reach their fulfillment in the three large scale painted color photographs that crown the exhibition’s ambitious theme.
Each of these images represents a core value of Judaism boiled down to its essence. Sukkot represents the hiddur mitzvah involved in carefully choosing a beautiful lulav and esrog. Two men are patiently examining one aspect of the four species. The image is disarmingly familiar, black jackets and hats contrasting with stark white shirts, both facing the same direction to examine respectively an esrog and a lulav bundle. But the abstraction that results from Russell’s reworking of the photographic image obliterates their faces and individuality, rendering these pious young men into a chilling symbol of what Jewish men methodically, perhaps obsessively, do before Yom Tov.
In her most radical distillation Russell depicts the public reading of the Torah, Bar Mitzvah, as a confrontation between the brilliantly lit white scroll and a deeply silhouetted figure, clad in tallis and kepah. The reader is concentrating, focused only on where the yad has momentarily rested. At this moment he clearly knows no other world than the holy words. It is an image of enormous solitude even though we know with certainty that this scene can happen only in the public scene of a congregation.
Finally the reassuring textual message of One Way stands in stark contrast to the widely eclectic visual language that Russell employs to animate this (and most other) images. A father and son, rendered in bluish monochrome, walk hand in hand through an urban landscape fraught with visual danger. These Hasidim stand as sacred islands in a sea of unaccountable, indeed threatening changes and turmoil. The surrounding world is drenched in violent colors of crimson and sickly yellowed browns, effaced and brutalized in her vision. The father must guard his son by the only other stable element in the composition, the simple street sign proclaiming the certainty of religious faith, ‘One Way.’ But is there really only one way? Is it that simple? It is exactly this tension that gives this image such a powerful impact.
Lynn Russell’s artwork resides on a very fine edge between the deeply felt piety of Baruch HaShem and all the doubts and tension that pursuing a religious life can have on our individuality, our independence and freedom. Do the words Baruch haShem, uttered in thankfulness, faith, and submission to God’s will, also mean that we must lose a bit (or more) of ourselves in the Divine will? Do we become less or more in these encounters? These are the questions that Lynn Russell’s current exhibition makes impossible to avoid.