Gallery Going, by DAVID COHEN          
      A version of this article first appeared in the
New York Sun, October 21, 2004
 


"Archie Rand: The Nineteen Diaspora Paintings" at the Hebrew Union College/ Jewish Institute of Religion Museum
until January 12, 2005 (1 W. 4th Street, at Mercer Street, 212-674-5300)

"Tom Otterness on Broadway" until November 22 (Broadway between 60th and 168th Street.)

DAVID COHEN

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Archie Rand Eve, details to follow
COVER: November 12, 2004: Abraham and Isaac, details to follow

From generation even unto generation, Sunday school pupils (both Gentile and Jew) have slipped their favorite comic between the covers of the Good Book to relieve the tedium of religious instruction. What would they (or their teachers) make of the paintings of Archie Rand?

A riotous collision of cultures, "The Nineteen Diaspora Paintings," on view at New York's Hebrew Union College, render holy writ as cartoon strip. The pictures tap the typographic punch of the cartoon, with text (in Hebrew) dramatically boxed, ballooned, crescendoing. Yet despite graphic rendering of figures and faces, and compressed space, the touch and color is painterly, with an expressivity and a tentative, exploratory character you don't get (or want) in cartoons. They look to Tintoretto as much as Jerry Siegel.

The series is as complex, iconographically and formally, as it is ambiguous in intent. It sets out to chronicle Israel's formation and continuance. Each picture takes up a spiritual theme from the central prayer cycle in the Jewish liturgy, the Amidah, the sequence of blessings traditionally recited, rocking back and forth, in silence.

Your eye soon comes round to Mr. Rand's language, the way you adjust to the darkness in a Gothic cathedral. It quickly emerges that he is more unorthodox as a comic artist than he is as a modern painter or a Jew. The earnestness and piety that pervade these images only make them weirder than if they were, like a Dalí or a Max Ernst, obviously blasphemous in intent.

Similarly, his embrace of the comic-strip idiom seems free of the irony in Picabia's movie-poster paintings or the critique found in early R.B. Kitaj, to cite two artists he closely recalls. He is much more like an Old Master painter, choosing the indicative moment, than the action illustrator, using each scene to advance narrative. Some images encapsulate different episodes of a familiar story through spatial shifts, once again putting you in mind equally of the comic and the fresco cycle.

To give an example of the displacement that characterizes Mr. Rand's iconography: The first blessing, which evokes the patriarchs, illustrates the theme not with the Jewish fathers - Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob - but with the universal mother, Eve. The quotes are from the first two chapters of Genesis: "and the man gave names to all the cattle and to the birds of the sky, and to every beast of the field, but for Adam no fitting helper was found for him." But what's depicted is far from Edenic: a clothed Eve is wandering in a barren land and is kept company by menacing dinosaurs - not what a creationist wants to see.

In other tableaux it seems the artist has delved into Jewish commentary that goes beyond literal scriptural statement. In the Jepthah story, which corresponds to the Amidah theme of punishing heresy, the stony-faced Judge rashly promised to sacrifice the first creature he ran into on returning home - which turned out to be his daughter. Mr. Rand renders the hapless wide-eyed offspring in the slick, seductive melodramatic shorthand of pulp fiction illustration. A second woman clasps herself in despair in an armchair beyond. This could be her mother, but it could also be the sad spinster (mitigating the harsh ending actually stated in the story) the rabbis say the daughter became.

This kind of displacement suggests theological sophistication, recalling the commentaries of the Midrash and, more so, the kabbalistic Zohar, which jump all over the place, scripturally and thematically, in their address of specific Torah verses. As Mr. Rand's stated aim has been to discover a Jewish way of painting, this anti-causal approach to image, text, theme and meaning makes sense. Unlike Medieval Christian artists, he is not painting an illiterate's Bible.

Casting Biblical characters in modern dress has precedents in both Christian and Jewish art, but Mr. Rand is doing something odder than that. What comes across strongest is not the modernity of his bible but its retro-fitting. He shares his warped 1940s nostalgia with the younger German painter, Neo Rauch, whose faux-naïve exuberance for the period of fascism is fraught with historical ambiguity. In Mr. Rand's case, there is a sense of historical correction, an quasi Zionist empowerment fantasy in rendering Israelites as modern, rugged, action heroes.

***

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What Mr. Rand is to Judaism, Tom Otterness does for agitprop. He has become, deservedly, a truly popular public sculptor, providing wit, charm, and the gentlest provocation to the city streets. His permanent installation in Battery Park City, "The Real World," is a subversive bestiary for all the family - "Disney on crack," as one critic put it. He is sought after by corporations who seem gluttons for satiric punishment when it comes to his exuberant, raucous explorations of the foibles of power and money.

Around two-dozen of his capricious creations form a Boccacio-like progression through the landscaped medians of Broadway from Columbus Circle to Washington Heights on Manhattan's Upper West Side. These are all rendered in Mr. Otterness's smooth, easy, cartoony figuration: His cast of characters look like they could have rolled in from a production of the Threepenny Opera based on the Monopoly set.

Mr. Otterness's shiny, bulbous bronze personifications of greed and corruption seem as inescapably cuddly and loveable as Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi. He appeals nostalgically to anachronistic political satire the way Mr. Rand does to comic books. His capitalists wear top hats, just like the ones in the children's drawings in Orwell's "1984."

Children and adults alike who delight in his Mr. Magoo-types and his anthropomorphized dollar signs and coins are as likely to know that the sculptor's vocabulary derives from a critique of capitalism as they are that "The Wizard of Oz" is rooted in Theosophy. You could say Mr. Otterness is not so much a Champagne socialist as a Coca-Cola communard.

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