Upon entering Lloyd Bloom’s exhibition at the Chassidic Art Institute one is confronted by a sweet beautiful image of a lamb skipping through the air in a puffy cloud landscape. Right next to it is an image of a goat kid cuddled up in the lap of a young shepherd. Further down the wall we see paintings depicting a young man leining from the Torah, then women lighting Shabbos candles and finally a father and son at the seder table, all candidates to be the most emblematic scene of Jewish life imaginable. So too an emotional scene showing a crowd of traditional Jews embracing each other sweeps us away in a wave of familiar emotions. All true until one picks up the gallery list of paintings with each work’s title. Little by little the façade falls away and a much more serious and tragic patina adjusts the meaning of these intriguing artworks.
That skipping lamb is actually, according to the artist, symbolic of Passover. In other words, he will be dinner. The image of the goat kid is titled Chad Gadya and we all know what happens to that little animal after the first stanza of the Passover song. The meager seder table with the dreamy eyed son listening to his father is actually set in the Warsaw Ghetto. Unlikely is ‘Next Year in Jerusalem,’ this may be their last. In all of these images, Bloom is not trying to be maudlin, rather he simply anchors our common Jewish experiences in the real world of Jewish history.
My review of Lloyd Bloom’s work graced these pages five years ago when I commented on his use of unique perspectives to create visual interest and uncommon meanings. Upon revisiting some of his older work and seeing the new work, there are considerably more treasures to be unearthed. Reconsidering his painting of Lot and his Daughters yields a more tragic painting, the father and his children are terrified at what appears to be the end of their world. Their mad dash to the illusion of safety foretells the fate of many a Jewish family in a still threatening world.
So too the lush and deceptive image known as the Controversial Tree. The thick leafy plant sports festive red fruit and initially harkens to the burning bush…that is until a brown spotted snake is seen peeking out from beneath the ample foliage. His evil head defined by an all too attentive eye is clearly seen near the top of the bush, a red forked tongue darting from his mouth. It is the uneasy combination of pleasant lushness, a flora that seems bountiful and life-giving; but here infested with malevolent animal nature, that makes this image so unsettling. In the loss of our primal innocence, why is the source of the knowledge of good and evil so threatening?
Perhaps as we begin to lose innocence we are forced to confront the elemental nature of evil. The tragedy is that this removes us from the Divine, separates us from a realm of unity and dumps us into the reality of a world hopelessly mixed up with good, evil and all the sorted variations in between. In some sense that is the meaning of another of Bloom’s paintings: David and Goliath.
David is depicted as a lad, barely a teenager. He stands with boyish pride, the enormous sword measuring two thirds of his entire height. And indeed Tanach treats him as such saying “for he was but a boy, ruddy and handsome” (Samuel 1:43). And yet he holds the massive head of the slain Goliath, much like the 1610 version this subject by the Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio. And yet the differences are telling.
Here David is supremely confident, not doubting like the Caravaggio, and furthermore Bloom provides us with the lifeless body of the fallen Philistine as evidence of his victory. At first it is visually uncertain as to what is happening. Then slowly we see that Goliath’s body is upside down, his severed neck at David’s feet. This provides an additional triumph for David in the form of a visual decapitation, the literal reversal whereas the head is normally on the top, now the body is turned around and is violently separated from its commander. The shock of a fallen mighty warrior is quite enough to animate this painting, and yet here even the lifeless Goliath intimates his terrible failure, the thumb of his limp hand gestures towards his severed neck admitting defeat. Of course in the contrast between fresh-faced youth and his powerful victim the most substantive reading is that it is David’s innocence that has been slain here. Welcome to the real world.
Finally Bloom’s image of Jews embracing. At first glance it is simply a tightly composed image of individuals embracing. Shallow space and an aerial perspective bring us very close to the subjects. The couple in the lower left sets the tone of deep affection with a cheek to cheek hug while just above them a father is about to embrace a child held up to him by a woman. To the right the man with his back to us simultaneously embraces two children. Almost everyone’s eyes are closed, so deep is their emotional concentration.
The title To Auschwitz shocks us as we are forced to reevaluate the meaning of the emotions we see depicted. Suddenly the intensity is of fear and loss, not joy. The scene begins to narrate into a future that we know and yet these figures could never guess. What could have been a joyous welcome or fond farewells now sours into impending tragedy.
Lloyd Bloom is an accomplished and deeply sensitive artist. He intuitively knows exactly which moment needs to be captured to remind us of the importance of the subject at hand; whether the joys of ordinary Jewish life, an episode from our sacred history or the tragic moments that seem to haunt our people for millennia. He finds the most meaning in the interstices between image and text, between what we initially think we are looking at and what the text, via the title, subverts and transforms. The visual experience he confronts us with is inherently Jewish, a constant dialogue between two ways of thinking, multiple concepts simultaneously juggled and suspended in mid-air. It’s a visual and intellectual pleasure not to be missed.