how we talk to each other

Renny Pritikin


What would happen if you went back in time a million years and died in an accident, before you were ever born? In one such story, all memory of your existence immediately evaporates. Science-fiction story lines and illustrations (urban crowd fleeing flying saucer death ray!) of my pre-teen years are still with me decades later. They are akin to the Jewish folktales I grew up with, and I believe that they inform my ideas as co-curator of Jewish Folktales Retold: Artist as Maggid. I never wanted to live in a magical world, or believed in its reality; I just wanted to be thrilled at the ideas of what such a world might be like. There is a line of thought about fantasy that argues: we can’t imagine something that doesn’t already exist, we only think of variations on what does exist (two heads or ten eyes). What I love about fantasy stories is when they approach that boundary—suggesting a world previously incomprehensible.  Jewish Folktales Retold: Artist as Maggid is an exhibition that attempts a related task: can we take fantastic stories conjured for another time and place, ask contemporary visual artists to respond to them, and receive back entirely new manifestations and ways of knowing that relate to our time and our place? 

Howard Schwartz’s invaluable work anthologizes both familiar and less familiar yarns, retrieving them from a kind of literary diaspora that mirrors the Jewish people’s diaspora. Folktales are time capsules of values in the distant past in faraway places. They are chock full of implicit values about wealth and poverty, men and women, obedience and renegade behavior, fate and free will, individual and community, superstition, and innovation, oppression and resistance, natural and supernatural, and much more. Science fiction, being a modern form of imagined, fantastical stories, tends to be about the impact of technological innovation on human life, environmentalism, first contact, and issues of space and time travel. Where they overlap is in an implicit need to prepare for an unknown future, whether that involves finding a meaningful and spiritually informed life or merely surviving through apocalyptic or incomprehensible change. Not so different, nor mutually exclusive.

Folktales use a variety of recurring devices to move the plots forward, including caves or other geological passageways that take one from one world to another, as well as kidnapping, imprisonment and escape, wishes granted, and choices made. M. Louise Stanley’s insight that these recurring characters and plot devices in folktales—the princess, or prince, a wrecked ship, a giant bird—might be depicted auditioning for parts in the stories is a clever synthesis: an incisive understanding of assigned cultural roles, and an opportunity to offer a tour de force of narrative visual storytelling. Stanley makes highly skilled and often hilarious paintings that inhabit art history but whose purpose is to savage the ironies, if not stupidities, of our contemporary social environment, with an eye to offering a female point of view. In her work, she demonstrates a great wit while being capable of brutal honesty; an honest wit that is usually laced with sadness. The stories she chose reflect that duality, such as “The Finger,” in which a cadaverous spurned bride seeks to seduce an unwary suitor with her absurd finger sticking up out of her shallow grave. 

Inez Storer also includes both charm and sadness in her paintings, perhaps reflecting the joy and pain of learning of her Jewish ancestry late in life. She is known for her distinctive painting approach that combines text with original and found imagery, on misty color fields, to arrive at an all-over, floating synthesis of ideas, folktales, and memories. She has made a suite of paintings that pulls sources from several of the folktales, such as “The Ocean of Tears” or “Milk and Honey.” Thus, images found in the paintings will refer to events in several of the stories: quests, combat with evil, enchanted creatures, and more. The elements she extracts from the stories find their way onto her canvases in an abstracted or isolated mode. These are extrapolated with her own stories and autobiography. In this way Storer participates in the exhibition thematic of stories that evolve as they are shared.

Mads Lynnerup is known for his predilection for choosing humorous narratives: making video and installations that are designed to make us laugh. He likes to tilt the world just a little bit off kilter, enabling the viewer to see aspects of reality otherwise taken for granted, like the predictable comings and goings of people in a Copenhagen square on a daily basis in his videotape Routines. He selected the stories “Elijah’s Violin” and “The Princess in the Tower.” The latter deals with the attempt of a father to prevent his daughter from marrying an unworthy suitor by isolating her. Of course his efforts are thwarted by an unpredictable twist of fate, just as a pedestrian walking down the same street as always may one day by chance find himself the subject of an artist’s video. 

Chris Sollars also is interested in the urban experience and the mini-events that shape our lives. He is an artist known for using everyday city streets as the sets for his performative actions, from kicking soccer balls to swimming through public water features to camouflaging himself as a pile of garbage bags piled on the curb. In his selected story, “Milk and Honey,” a shepherd follows one of his goats into an adventure that magically and instantly carries him thousands of miles from home. Consistent with his ongoing practice, Sollars’ video follows a goat walking through San Francisco streets to see where it will lead him, exploring neighborhoods in contrast with the goat’s peculiar presence.

Far from Sollars’ urban scenes, Vera Iliatova paints narrative representations of young women in outdoor settings dense with rivers, trees, and flowers. Her figures are always backgrounded, even hidden—the scale of their human existence dwarfed by the ominous realities of the world in which they find themselves. Iliatova endured poverty and the privations of the final years of the Soviet Union; for a year, at fifteen, she even lived parentless while waiting to join her mother in America. Iliatova responded particularly to two folktales: “Drawing the Wind,” and “Milk and Honey.” In the former, a young artist enables his father and friends to escape an inquisition by drawing a sailing ship that magically transports them over the sea. Clearly for the artist, hardship and trauma can be ameliorated by the power of art. In the latter story, a young shepherd in Poland is separated from his family by thousands of miles after entering a magic cave. Again, this story reiterates Iliatova’s adolescent trauma: folktales enhance our understanding of our own histories by exposing patterns among the chaos.

Golems are creatures that are created by systematizing the patterns in nature from chaos to existence. In the folktale “The Golem,” a supernatural being of great power is created to protect Jews from their persecutors. This creature—made of mud and stone—lives at the boundary between life and death, god and humankind. Elisabeth Higgins O’Connor makes large-scale creatures out of detritus, like discarded furniture parts, wire, and paper. As they are created on-site, they are at once objects and also a record of her improvisational decision-making. They are redolent of nightmare beings that emerge from our closets and under our beds after the lights go out; like the Golem of Jewish folktales, they are a product of humanity striving toward the divine power of creation. They rebound from benevolent to threatening and are always a stiff breeze away from non-existence. 

For David Kasprzak the ephemerality of truth and delusion is a parallel to the Golem’s precarious existence. He selected “The Golden Mountain” as the folktale source for his work. In that story, a princess comes into possession of a golden seashell. If she puts her ear up to the seashell, she can hear anyone in the world speaking. Kasprzak offers viewers a contemporary version of the story, with his shell emanating a recording ostensibly made in recent years of a mysterious sound heard coming from the sky all over the world. Kasprzak’s work often centers on examining ways that belief, popular culture, and the art world create meaning. Thus, the widely repeated modern legend of a sound heard simultaneously worldwide suggests that the magic doings of a seashell are not far removed from today’s credulous beliefs.

Artists use many strategies when choosing to engage with classical sources, changing the form or content or both. Illustration is the least challenging but the most direct of those choices. Updating the original using contemporary vocabulary and current circumstances, a form of translation, is another. Abstracting selected aspects of a story can also be an affective technique. The most challenging approach is to create something inspired by the original that ends up being wholly different, almost contradictory. If that new end product comes full circle and addresses the same issues as the original but from a completely different intellectual understanding, something special has happened. Folktales are often understood as the mechanism that tradition uses to impose its order on young minds. Much of the agenda of contemporary art is to reveal the way that culture is a product of a society’s power relationships. It is rewarding to attend to the way the artists in this exhibition have both paid homage to the Jewish cultural heritage and folklore and at the same time examined it for its underlying truths. 

Renny Pritikin has been a curator and museum director in Northern California since 1979, at New Langton Arts, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, The Nelson Gallery and Fine Arts Collection, UC Davis, and currently at The Contemporary Jewish Museum (Chief Curator). He has been awarded the Koret Israel Prize; gave a lecture tour of Japanese museums as a guest of the US State Department; and won a Fulbright to give a lecture tour throughout New Zealand. As a curator he bridges the gap between the fine arts and popular culture, showing The Art of Star Wars; Ed “Big Daddy” Roth; Syd Mead; Ricky Jay; and Don Ed Hardy. He was a senior adjunct professor in curatorial practice in the graduate program at California College of the Arts. He is the author of four books of poetry, most recently A Quiet in Front of the Best Western, Museum Quality Press, 2014. Born in Brooklyn, he has an MA in Interdisciplinary Art from San Francisco State.