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Milewicz Paintings: The Soul Exceeds its Circumstances

The philosopher Theodor Adorno famously wrote in 1949; “cultural criticism finds itself with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”  This statement posited that the Holocaust exposed the unredeemable rotten underbelly of Western culture and therefore the very notion of creating beauty and sensitivity was at an insurmountable impasse.  Alas, as cultural history has shown, he was wrong.  Strikingly, it might be said that one of the few ways still provocatively available to speak about the Holocaust is in fact through poetry.

There is a poetry in bricks, shovels and spools of thread.  Simply presented as testaments; witnesses to a long life lived, these 31 quietly evocative paintings by Ron Milewicz, modestly contemplate his father’s life and suffering in the Holocaust.  Significantly the exhibition, beautifully curated and hung by Elizabeth Harris Gallery director Miles Manning in conjunction with the artist, makes a powerful case for the subtle and understated use of poetic symbols to explore the most terrible times in our communal memory.

Eli Milewicz, the artist’s father, recently passed away just shy of his 99th birthday. His son, Ron, a well-established urban landscape artist and teacher at the New York Studio School, created a painted testimony to his life in just seven months utilizing only 7 motifs: bricks, shovels, scissors, spools of thread, challah, an overcoat and houseplants.   With this limited lexicon a complex and compelling story unfolds.

Milewicz’s father was born in 1913 in a small village outside Bialystok; a tailor by trade. After service in the Polish army he was forced into the Bialystok ghetto by the Nazis and then endured forced labor in Majdanek, Blizyn, Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen; finally surviving a death march to the Baltic Sea and saved by the war’s conclusion.  He married, and emigrated to the United States in 1949 where he prospered and made a living as a sample maker in the Garment District until the 1980’s.  The artist tells us that “these paintings regard his life.”

Shovel (2013), [80 x 30] oil on linen by Ron Milewicz Courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery
Shovel, 2013, oil on linen, 80 x 30 by Ron Milewicz, courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery
In the catalogue essay by Tom Sleigh we learn that the artist’s father “told his son, when he was 97 years old, that the camp taught him that there was “no hope, just imagination…”  Perhaps, after Auschwitz hope in its largest sense was dashed, which paradoxically gave free reign to the imagination, the unique province of poetry.  Witness the towering painting Shovel (80” x 30”).

Formally this is a portrait of a crude utilitarian object; a means of hard labor, excavation, and even construction.  But in the terrible past it was cruel labor, digging ditches and immediately filling them in, and a forbidding tool to dig graves, even one’s own.  The pine board it rests on resonates as a plain coffin that was denied most victims.  Suddenly Milewicz’s personal metaphors become public and shared by thousands of survivors and victims.  Imagine years of your life defined by a shovel, object both of your oppression and your very survival.

Stack (2013), [24 x 18] oil on linen by Ron Milewicz Courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery
Stack, 2013, oil on linen, 24 x 18 by Ron Milewicz, courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery
Bricks haunt the exhibition in multiple manifestations.  Five bricks piled slightly askew with one another summon another complex “portrait.”  The gritty realism of the paint handling sets one’s teeth on edge with each sliver of exposed top surface revealing a different personality of the baked clay.  We know these bricks were used to punish the inmates with useless labor, carried from one place to another without purpose.  Bricks built the foundations, halls and ovens of terror and death.  Forced labor from the Sachsenhausen camp supplied a nearby brick factory designated for the rebuilding of Berlin.  Five bricks are also seen here just lined up, three flat and two tipped lopsided exposing a hidden side.  In yet another painting a whole diverse collection; some smooth, some with holes, some light, some dark, the bricks seem to hover at the top of the composition barely defying gravity.  Only five of the bricks are uncropped.  Finally a somber black painting of many, many bricks all neatly covered with a black, thin, shroud-like material.  Here the bricks have become bodies, corpses covered out of respect and set aside for burial.  It is the grimmest of painting’s poetry.

Bricks (2013), [36 x 48] oil on linen by Ron Milewicz Courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery
Bricks, 2013, oil on linen, 36 x 48 by Ron Milewicz, courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery
Interspersed and in proximity with the bricks are two equally simple paintings of Challah.  While one is on a white background, one on black, they both act as visual nourishment to the bleak unfolding narrative.  The challah is painted in the warm, glowing just-baked tones that summons hope the camps lacked.

Spools II (2013), [20 x 20] oil on linen by Ron Milewicz Courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery
Spools II, 2013, oil on linen, 20 x 20 by Ron Milewicz, courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery
Three objects reach from the past into a living present; spools, shears and an overcoat.  These are of course the tools of Milewicz’s trade and predominately speak to the fruitful life he made in America.  But these tools were also the keys to his survival in the camps and ghetto; the fortunate tailors were a class apart.  In some camps there were separate barracks for tailors and their machines.  Many Nazi commandants coveted their own personal tailors for themselves and their family, even shipping home hand tailored garments.  In the universe of hell, tailors were not quite as expendable as other Jews. 

Inside-Out Overcoat is a tragic symphony of survival.  Incongruously against a matzah pattern background, the overcoat was his father’s; its topstitching a hallmark of a professionally handmade garment. It is placed face down and folded back with the arms turned out revealing the soft inner cream-colored lining.  Because of the placement the shell also shows its shinny satiny lining contrasted against the taupe outer coat.  While we associate a coat with one color, only once it is opened do we glimpse its distinctive lining.  Its interior sleeve lining, rarely different, is almost always hidden.  Here three distinctive aspects of personal history are displayed in a garment that protected what was in some aspects, a hidden history.  In the camps there was no hope, no protection that one could depend upon; a simple overcoat was unthinkable.  Here Milewicz has painted a ruthless poem of his father’s complex history.

Inside-Out Overcoat (2013), [56 x 48] oil on linen by Ron Milewicz Courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery
Inside-Out Overcoat, 2013, oil on linen, 56 x 48 by Ron Milewicz, courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery

In a personal contrast with the previous painterly metaphors, houseplants and their leaves make up the remainder of the exhibition.  An elegant single white hydrangea sets off two large haunting paintings of rubber plants, echoes of the rubber plant the artist grew up with in his parent’s home; the artist’s own memory now contrasted with the objects that defined his father’s past and present.

With a necessary bit of context these spare poetic explorations cautiously bring us into the terrifying universe of a Holocaust survivor.  They demand contemplation and reflection and indeed the artist encourages that “they have multiple meanings, even contradictory meanings…welcome[ing] the associations that viewers will intuit from them.” That is the very nature of poetry, and these brilliant artworks 70 years after the camps bring us one small step closer to understanding the incomprehensible nature of the Shoah and those who miraculously survived.

Milewicz Paintings: the soul exceeds its circumstances
Elizabeth Harris Gallery
529 West 20th Street, New York, NY 10011   212 463 9666
Tues–Saturday: 11am – 6pm
Until October 12, 2013

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