“Every philosophy resolves itself into autobiography in the end” – Friedrich Nietzsche
Exactly how is an aspect of Jewish identity expressed in the mid-20th century phenomena of comic book Superheros? Aside from the ethnic background of Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, Depression era Jews, and the fact that his Kryptonian name, Kal-El, becomes the Hebrew “voice of God,” what else is there? Many have seen multiple Jewish echoes, not the least of which may be his quasi-messianic role in upholding Truth, Justice and the American Way. Joel Silverstein dares to explore the social and personal ramifications of Superman in his current exhibition, Jo-El / Jore-El: Superheroes, Autobiography and Religion currently at the Hadas Gallery.
Silverstein’s work has long concerned itself with the intersection between the personal and Jewish Biblical narrative, significantly explored in my article “Brighton Beach Bible.” Here the personal expands to include his family who, “morph into superheroes… to pose authentic questions about the self; the act of living a heroic life in the modern world.” Central to this approach is the artist’s constant realization that, in spite of our best efforts, we live in a profoundly unredeemed world, tragically alienated from both God and our positive social roles.
Jo-El/Jore-El establishes the basic pictorial premise of the artist dressed in a Superman costume, bearded and incongruously wearing his own glasses, posed before a dual motif of Greco-Roman wall painting and a floating pulp fiction image of “The Shadow.” This painting operates as a formal classic portrait, stipulating the inherent contradictions between a Brooklyn Jew pretending to be a superhero; the overbearing Greek pictorial tradition he has inherited as an artist and the goyish pulp know-it-all character who proclaims; “Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of men? The Shadow knows!” The irony is that of course no one but God “knows.”
In House of El, 2013 the worrisome paradox is pursued with a dual depiction of the artist in the lower right in “normal” garb, while in the center he is about to rip off his everyday shirt, revealing himself as a superhero, sporting a classically yeshivish black fedora. Surfacing here is the Talmudic scholar within the artist’s personality, seemingly essential to performing his salvational work for mankind. The ethos of Hope and Power begin to be played out amid the vicissitudes of a fragile identity in an oppressively secularized world, a personality embedded in transition.
For Silverstein “superheroes [operate] not simply as powerful or mythological beings like Hercules, but as avatars and harbingers of the metaphysical moral order. They more closely resemble the prophets and angels of the Hebrew Bible than the brawling heroes of the Greco-Roman universe.” And just as the Biblical prophet rails against societal evil and disobedience, tragically ignored and reviled, so does the specter of the Jewish Superhero artist. Gentlemen, Krypton is Doomed expresses an inherent pessimism; the artist as Superman slumped back under an onslaught of beautifully painted flowers and Michelangelo’s Moses towering with his goyish horns. Even the Superman costume is compromised with ill-fitting boots revealing the artist’s all-too-human feet sticking out beneath.
These 20 or so paintings, all created specifically for this exhibition, explore many themes that confront today’s Jew, artist and ordinary person who realizes that they do not quite possess “superpowers.” Superman in Exile, 2013, a 16 foot long epic that depicts the artist and his wife wandering beneath the elevated “F” Train, juxtaposed with a bound Harry Houdini, master Jewish escape artist in an urban dystopia complete with vistas of Prague and the artist’s very own backyard cemetery. Julie as Wonder Woman is a thoughtful and tender portrait of the artist’s wife, here wearing half of the artist’s eyeglasses with him faded into the background and yet always observing from afar.
The quest for a Jewish vision of substance and meaning is one that inevitably encounters frustration and reversals. This seems to be especially true on many levels for the Jewish artist. The appropriation of Superman into a Jewish superhero seems deeply appropriate for us, as Silverstein heroically states in his catalogue essay: “As the shirt comes off, our confidence and creativity are revealed by the letter ‘S’ on a yellow chevron, cape fluttering behind us. We are born aloft, anew, and ever young. This exhibition is thereby dedicated to all those who engage in the never-ending battle, despite evil in the world and getting up for work.”
Hadas Gallery, Rohr Center at the Pratt Institute
541 Myrtle Avenue, Brooklyn, New York 11205
718 866 6815
Opening March 23, 3-5:30pm
March 23-May 16, 2014: Open by appointment