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The Passion of Leah Ashkenazy

“…There is just something about that little girl that I can’t get out of my mind. How does she face those fire-breathing beasts?”  Four and a half years ago I wrote about Leah Ashkenazy’s painting, The End of Childhood as a “complex commentary on the Shoah and how it affected the children who lived through it.”  That review came out the week before the Twin Towers were attacked on September 11th.  As a survivor of the Holocaust and now a witness to 9/11, Ashkenazy finds herself caught  between two epochal events that changed our world.  Nonetheless her artistic vision is uncomfortable with these simple parameters, rather she is inexorably drawn to the many other tragedies that have blossomed between the war against the Jews and the war against the West.   Her passionate nature finds the violent death of any child, the needless suffocation of any life, the fruits of any terror equally inimical to God’s image in which we are all created.  Her passion is not limited.

Remember and Rebuild, WTC (2002), oil on canvas by Leah Ashkenazy
Remember and Rebuild, WTC, 2002, oil on canvas by Leah Ashkenazy

Ashkenazy’s images evoke highly symbolic forms, a whole universe of that which continually stands for something lurking behind, always another meaning about to be born. Remember and Rebuild, WTC pictures a young couple; she with her matching blue shoes and handbag and he with a stylish shirt and sports jacket.  They might be co-workers, husband and wife or just friends.  They are encapsulated in a fiery shape surrounded by fallen trees and scattered branches.  Above them the shattered pieces of a building, terrified little faces looking out, hover in a clear blue sky.  That was the sky that morning, blue, clear and filled with death.  A fallen woman in blue covers her face as she cries, mourning the tragedy above.  Ashkenazy asks us, “What was their sin? They went to work.”

The artist insists that the tragedy of injustice, terror and destruction happens far too often, all over.  She paints images of the terrorist carnage in Bali, the devastation of the Tsunami, and the attacks on 7/7 in London.  The universal nature of tragedy strikes her as inescapable; it seems we all might someday become victims.  Indeed a portrait of a woman that she titles Crazy Mona Lisa, after the classically mysterious Renaissance beauty by Leonardo Da Vinci haunts us with a woman seated amidst blue flames and a nervous background, her modestly covered head wrenched upside down.   These paintings are from a world gone mad.  A world all too familiar.

A Glimpse from Heaven (2003), oil on canvas by Leah Ashkenazy
A Glimpse from Heaven, 2003, oil on canvas by Leah Ashkenazy

A Glimpse from Heaven moves her work closest to a Magritte-like surrealism.  A three sided structure is pictured within the walls of a grey-bricked enclosure.  Inside a dome sits as a tomb-like shape, reminiscent of the Kever Rochel or, paradoxically, the dome of the Young Israel of Boro Park only a few blocks from her home. Outside this enclosure a yellow tree shakes off its leaves in a funny shower of spring time blessing.  Observing the whole scene a little face peers down from the sky, perhaps the artist herself observing the constant clash between rebirth and the inevitability of the grave.

Remember and Rebuild: The Six Million (2003), oil on canvas by Leah Ashkenazy
Remember and Rebuild: The Six Million, 2003, oil on canvas by Leah Ashkenazy

Remember and Rebuild: The Six Million secures a ghastly link between the Twin Towers and the infamous smokestacks of death.  Six tall structures, etched with long vertical lines reminiscent of the World Trade Center’s facades stand in a distant orange field.  Tiny faces mingle with smoke and fire erupting from the tops of the towers as the entire scene is observed by a mysterious man in light blue flanked by six children.  The children are traditionally dressed, the young boys in caps, the girls in long frocks, all harkening to the styles of Eastern Europe in the years between the wars.  It is an unsettling image leading to question after question.  Who are these children?  If they are ghosts of lives lost in the Holocaust pondering how little has changed, is then the man a parent who couldn’t protect them, a parent who is still determined to rebuild after the carnage.

Ghetto (2006), oil on canvas by Leah Ashkenazy
Ghetto, 2006, oil on canvas by Leah Ashkenazy

Finally Ashkenazy depicts a troubling image of Jewish history, Ghetto.  Tiny figures in a foreground of an enormous playing field are dwarfed by a sienna red structure, girders rising up in a fantastic superstructure that encloses the field and shuts out the city beyond.  The city is vibrant with color, pinks, purples and pastels dominate.  But the structure is simultaneously a border and a window into the world beyond.  One wonders which is kept in and which is kept out.  Is it us versus them, or can we live in one whole world harmoniously, albeit with a structure of borders to remind us of our differences?

Leah Ashkenazy’s paintings are never simple depictions.  They always embed meaning within the pleasure of making and looking at art.  Since they operate in the realm of visual poetry, constantly shifting metaphors and allusions, my interpretations may be entirely different from those of other viewers, indeed at odds with the intentions of the artist herself.  In this kind of work that dichotomy is natural, even expected.  But one thing is certain, she paints passionately and urgently.  Her subjects embrace mankind, the violence, tragedy and love we all experience.  Her passion is as unlimited as the very breath we breathe.

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