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Addressing Inhumanity

By Denise Colson

Thirty-five modern and contemporary artists are taking a hard look at the many faces of inhumanity at a group exhibition on view at the historic Jewish Museum of Florida in Miami Beach, which is located in a former synagogue that housed the city’s first Jewish congregation.

“Evil: A Matter of Intent” is on loan from the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and was curated by Laura Kruger. The show gathers more than 70 artworks that span from 1940 to the present, including mixed media paintings, works on paper, photographs and sculptures. It features artists from around the world with diverse backgrounds, including Paul Margolis, Andi Arnowitz, Helene Aylon, Rosalyn A. Engelman, Debra Band, Tamar Hirschl, Riva Bell, Larry S. Frankel, Judith Glickman Lauder, Grace Graupe-Pillard, Barbara Green, Debbie Teicholz Guedalia, Carol Hamoy, Nathan Hilu, Elizabeth Langer, John Lawson, Margalit Mannor, Richard McBee, Elizabeth Langer, Ruben Malayan, Leonard Meiselman, Mark Podwal, David Newman, Jacqueline Nicholls, Hedy Pagremanski, Trix Rosen, Marilyn R. Rosenberg, Faith Ringgold, Ben Shahn, William Sharp, Linda Soberman, Joachim Schmid, Arthur Szyk, Paul Weissman, Grace Bakst Wapner and David Wander.

Linda Soberman, First They Came for……, 2014, lithoprint, 20" x 30."

As the title reminds us, during these precarious times acts of evil are premeditated and intentional, motivated by selfishness and the desire to gain at the expense of others. “Evil is not a cosmic accident, it does not just happen,” Kruger says. “Evil is a deliberate action or inaction. Evil is the violation of our common humanity.” The work of these artists shows how evil manifests in many forms, including genocide, torture, slavery and fear of “the other.” The museography of the Miami presentation of this show was created by Jacqueline Goldstein, curator at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU.

The works gathered in “Evil: A Matter of Intent” demonstrate how the nature of this concept is reinforced by indifference, bullying, cruelty and denial. Terrorist acts, rape, destruction of culture and knowledge, pogroms, obliteration of cultural heritage, child abuse, poisoning of the earth and water, and murder are rampant and unceasing. The very heart of this exhibition beats in the work of the participating artists who refuse to remain silent despite forces of intimidation or popular beliefs. Their voices and visions are direct and distinct, forever asking the viewer what he or she would do if placed in similar situations depicted in these works of art.

“Evil: A Matter of Intent,” installation view. The Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU. On view through Oct. 1.

“The artists in this exhibition, using an international visual language, challenge the concept of heroes and villains,” Kruger explains in her essay for the catalog. “Who is the hero? Who is the tyrant? Are the seeds of evil latent in a hero?” she asks. “Many of us have a vision of how to proceed. Less rhetoric. More action. It is up to each of us to wage war on evil.”

To create her piece I Looked Into the Passages: Curses, The Vengeance, Blotted Out, Sin Offering, An Abomination, We Smote of 2003, Helen Aylon chose several verses from the Hebrew Bible that deal with evil and has magnified the operative evil words. Her work can be found in collections around the world including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and Whitney Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. In the mid-1960s, she painted her iconic 16-foot mural for the synagogue library at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

The Boy with a Gun series by Graupe-Pillard consists of silhouette figures shown as containers housing images of gang warfare and capital punishment. These powerful works call attention to the urgent need for gun control laws. She suggests that a child’s game can become adult gun violence. Graupe-Pillard’s pieces were featured in the recent exhibition “The Female Gaze: Women Look at Men” at New York’s Cheim + Read gallery and has also exhibited at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, the National Academy Museum and the Bass Museum.

Grace Graupe-Pillard, Boy with a Gun: Saturday Night Special, 1992, pastel, cutout canvas, 82" x 51."

Andi Arnovitz has created several hundred silk belts, which symbolize the fragility of women. They stand in contrast to the cruelty associated with leather belts, which have long been a symbol of domestic violence, a form of abuse accompanied by shame and silence on the part of the abused. Arnovitz wrote stories of domestic violence upon the tiny belts that must not be forgotten.

Andi Arnovitz, Beaten Out of Them, 2012, 226 silk belts, ⅞" x 56" each

In Good Girls/Bad Girls: Dr. Mazeltuv Barukhova of 2013, Carol Hamoy put a spotlight on a bitter custody battle in which Dr. Mazeltuv Barukhova hired her cousin to kill her husband. The artist used the visual irony of delicate lace and embroidery to challenge traditional notions of femininity in that brutal act of murder.

Trix Rosen’s Sin Street (2013) uses the image of performance artist Fred Koening. The aesthetics of this artwork have their roots in the shadows and violence depicted on pulp fiction covers and film noir movie posters, where “bad girl” characters live in a place and time where good is not always rewarded and evil is not always punished.

Trix Rosen, Sin Street, 2013, photograph of performance artist Fred Koenig, archival digital inkjet print, 291/2" x 20."

In First They Came for… (2014), Soberman talks about the complicit indifference of those bystanders who witnessed evil during the Holocaust. The piece features the image of the “winking” woman whose face is covered by quotations by Martin Niemöller, a prominent Protestant pastor and outspoken critic of Adolf Hitler, who spent seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps.

Paul Weissman, Yesterday’s Children, 2015, inked woodcut, lockets, photos, and resin, 163/4" x 221/8."

In Yesterday’s Children (2015), Paul Weissman combines printmaking techniques and a collage of baby pictures that feature seemingly innocent children that, on closer inspection, turn out to be Hitler, Mao Zedong, Kim Jong-il, Saddam Hussein, and Joseph Stalin. The backdrop woodcut depicts the chaos of destruction these dictators caused.

“This exhibition is timely and powerful,” says Susan Gladstone, director of the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU. “These artists tackle issues we are all confronting right now, at this juncture in history. They bring evil to light from a multitude of shadowy angles, capturing historical events and expressing outrage. They leave us, the viewers, to our own responses-and possibly to our own personal calls to action.”

Barbara Green, Cain, 2015, oil on board, 18" x 24."

“Evil: A Matter of Intent” is on view through Oct. 1. The Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU is located at 301 Washington Ave. in the heart of South Beach’s Art Deco District and is part of Florida International University.

Denise Colson is an arts writer based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.