Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Where Paintings Come From

The Heartbeat  2019  Susan Weinberg
Do you ever wonder where paintings come from? Well, sometimes so do the artists. Lately my own work seems to be veering off into new directions and I trace its evolution, fascinated by the process itself.

 I was recently tasked with a project that is a partnership between Israeli and U.S. artists. We are each to develop an image based on a theme of exploring the intersections between art, science and Judaism. We then react to our partner’s artwork, each then creating a new image. I’ve written of the first effort, now I am at the reaction piece. In this case I had a starting point, my response to my partner’s image. Now I am somebody who always has a lot to say about my artwork, witness this blog.  My partner represents the alternate school of thought, she tells me that she doesn’t name her paintings because she wants people to see whatever they see in them. 

I had a clue though, she told me that a particular image related to the Weizmann Institute, an Israeli scientific institution that has harbored and trained many scientists. We visited it on our last trip to Israel and I was blown away. The way in which ideas were communicated was extraordinary and effectively bridged the distance to nonscientists.

 My partner’s piece had collage-like elements artfully composed. The one that particularly drew my attention was composed of two larger figures each pointing in opposite directions, sending smaller figures off in different directions. I later learned they were scientists, but they reminded me of refugees. That in turn reminded me of a book I had read by Katie Marton called The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World. It had traced the journey of nine Budapest Jews who fled the Holocaust, finding their way to the United States and Great Britain. Many of them were in fact scientists, all were pivotal in their field. Each brought their expertise with them, benefiting their new country with their creative work and discoveries. 

 I began to explore Jews in science which led me to the Nobel prize list, 20% Jewish versus .2% in the general population. Most Jews can quote those figures as it is a source of deep pride. So, what causes this preponderance? Clearly there is a Jewish connection and I theorize that the questioning nature of the religion and the outsider status of Jews is a contributing element. To create you need to question and to be able to see the world through fresh eyes, to be a bit of a renegade and not accept the conventional wisdom. Creation is living on the edge, not knowing exactly where you’re going to end up. Both science and art draw upon a creative process as they find their way into the unknown.

I began to explore discoveries by those of Jewish heritage. It is a long list, spanning many disciplines. I noticed that many inventions related to the heart: pacemakers, defibrillators and even the first practical system of electrocardiography were attributed to those of Jewish heritage. The Torah looks to the heart as the seat of wisdom with over 900 mentions. Jews have certainly expended a lot of energy and wisdom towards keeping it beating.

Heart and defibrillator
polio virus and vaccine
In painting I began with a Star of David, not static, but flying into space, almost dancing. A heart sits in the middle of it, the beating heart of Judaism, defibrillation paddles on either side lest it falter. Collaged in are symbols of scientific discoveries by Jews, nuclear chain reaction, quantum mechanics, computer technology, the polio vaccine and the virus it was to conquer. Many discoveries spread out across the world to nations with greater freedom and less bigotry as Jews fled antisemitism.   
Scientists as refugees
What were the sources that fed my iconography? I’ve mentioned the book which caused me to think of refugees, spreading their discoveries around the world. I took the small figures from my partner’s painting and reproduced and reassembled them. Her scientists became scientists as refugees. 

canary in the coal mine

 Antisemitism came to mind as I’ve been working with a friend who is a Holocaust survivor on a presentation on that theme. We talked of the role that long-standing antisemitism played in the Holocaust and its reemergence today. That led me to think of the canary in the coal mine, Jews are targeted whenever bigotry is on the rise. A canary flew into my image, landing on the star. 

 The heart reminded me of a heartbeat. As I considered how to show one, an EKG came to mind. In fact, a man of Jewish heritage was important in its development. The refugees echo the line of the EKG, rising and falling.

 Another subtle influence was the home I lived in for a month in Lithuania when I attended the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. It was an artist’s home and his large canvases filled the walls. The dominant color was white, but not plain white. White over other colors, small iconography showing through. His work spoke to me and the power of white obscuring, but allowing a glimpse, stayed with me.
Some happy accidents came in as well. The original background was a reddish iron oxide, but a heavier application of white on one of the collaged images caused me to imagine the entire background in white. It is always a bit scary to paint over what you have, fearful that you will destroy it and there are always some unintended consequences. The star became more dominant. Just as in cooking, I found I needed to add something to counterbalance.  I collaged in some decorative papers to soften the line and realized that if I let it float above the star it created greater depth.

There is a back-and-forth movement. I draw from reading, writing, discussion and research. I am influenced by my visual surroundings, the images of science and a bit of free association. I may not know exactly where I’m heading, but I gauge my direction as I go, experimenting as I step into the unknown.

No comments:

Post a Comment