That's The Law; Paintings by Richard Kenigsman

Organized by Yeshiva University Museum
The Cardozo School of Law Gallery, Yeshiva University
55 Fifth Avenue, New York (212) 294 8330
Sunday -Thursday; 9am-8pm ; Friday; 9-4pm
Until June 3, 2001

Jazz Singer; acrylic painting by Richard Kenigsman

I can't help myself. Go ahead and walk in and laugh. Stop yourself because what you are laughing at is irreverent and outrageous. This can't be right. Laugh at a poster with a big brash kid bursting though a paper circle labeled; "Kid's Factory." And plastered on the image is the injunction; "p'ru ve r'vu. (Be fruitful and multiply)" IsnÍt this vulgar?

Or what about the Groucho-like head chomping on a cigar that looks like a miniature Torah scroll beneath the legend; "Just DonÍt Do It." A Marx Brothers rebbe? A big smile creeps across my face as the shock of recognition and scandal meet in my mind. I chuckle and shake my head as I realize I am being confronted with a rare combination in Jewish art. Humor, belief and insight rolled up in a banal poster image that aims to set the Jewish world on its collective ear.

You will find over twenty such "posters" in the exhibition, "That's The Law" at The Gallery in the lobby of the Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University at 55 Fifth Avenue by the Belgium artist Richard Kenigsman. What the artist has done is to take the images and motifs of popular advertisements and Yiddish Theater posters and recreate them within his own conception of Yiddishkeit and modern Jewish life. What emerges initially is a kind of vulgar populist vision of the religious Jewish world.

You have entered a world where your most sacred beliefs and religious notions are being hawked as cheap advertisements. Don't get me wrong. They are not anti-religious, rather his art treats Yiddishkeit as a commodity in the mundane world that needs publicity, and examining and rethinking just like any other commodity in the world of ideas. What a notion!

Kenigsman's work here consists of four basic categories. Sports images like a Hasid basketball player slam-dunking a Torah in the basket; a frum baseball player at bat ready to swing his Torah and fully outfitted rugby players charging down the field with, yes again, the Torah. In each of these the Torah is the prize and the means to win the game. How crass.

Popular images include the memorable "Jazz Singer" of Al Jolson. His faceless figure down on one knee casts an incongruous shadow of a Hasid reminding us of Jolson's use of blackface in a double irony. The faux sheet music cover of "A Boychik Up To Date" presents us with a direct transliteration into Yiddish of the title. Alongside is an absurd image of an old fashioned dandy, complete with checkered waistcoat and gold watch, capped with an outlandish yellow Jew's hat of the Middle Ages. These posters play with pop images while calling into question Jewish success and assimilation in modern culture. In each one we are puzzled, then humored until we finally get the visual puns and conceptual double-entendres.

Transformed commercial images are especially striking with the "Read Tora Tora" as a pious take off of the Coke ad that advertises its product as "Tam ha hayim (Taste of Life)." The classic script of Coca Cola lettering is subverted into Tora Tora with a clean shaven yeshiva bachur pointing at a double bottle of his favorite beverage.

Finally Kenigsman uses general pop images as a means of social commentary. "Gevvalt" is lightly scrawled across the blue sky background as we see a Hasid clad in streimel and beckersher commanding a chariot drawn by three golden ferocious lions. Here Hasidus is shown triumphant as a kind of Ben Hur led by the lions of Judah symbolic of the Jewish people themselves. Is that how we see ourselves or perhaps how we act, asks the artist. The startling "Yid in the Box" jumps out at us. The image of a pop-up clown with red beard and peyos, slightly off center and akilter is unnerving. It is in such bad taste; the notion that Jews keep popping up, absurd and yet persistent. Who is this image meant for; us or the rest of the world?

Kenigsman's posters evoke a serious consideration of each underlying subject, after we have had a good laugh, because of two devices he uses. Each painting has the worn and folded feeling of an old poster that has been saved from the junk heap. This gives them a kind of historical distance that helps us suspend disbelief in the strangeness of what we are seeing. Then there is the overwhelming feeling of the absurd. The brash and disrespectful images he uses pushes them over the edge of tasteful art. And since they are not really commercial posters or ads, they enter into the realm of the absurd and therefore we must see and think beyond the flat poster surface. And that makes us think twice about what we are encountering.

Kenigsman says; "There is no message. I just want to invite people to share my joy." He is successful because he uses broad humor, bad taste, pop and commercial culture as his potent tools to examine and contemplate our Yiddishkeit and modern Jewish world. Each notion he makes into a poster is one we hold dear and think we are so sure about. He makes us laugh and then gets us to look a little closer. Perhaps thatÍs why I can't help myself. Go take a closer look.


Richard McBee
May 14, 2001

Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art. He is active in the American Guild of Judaic Art (jewishart.org) and the Young Israel of Fifth Avenue. Please feel free to email him with comments at mcbee@escape.com .

A Boytchik Up To Date; acrylic painting by Richard Kenigsman
Read Tora Tora; acrylic painting by Richard Kenigsman
Gevvalt; acrylic painting by Richard Kenigsman