Coming to S.F. museum – Provocative exhibit asks: Just what is too Jewish

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After igniting fiery debates on the East Coast, the provocative art exhibit "Too Jewish? Challenging Traditional Identities" is headed for San Francisco.

The multimedia display, which questions the bounds of Jewish identity, will run at the Jewish Museum San Francisco Sept. 16 through Jan. 5.

Bold, offbeat and iconoclastic, it hasn't agreed with everyone.

Some board members at the Jewish Museum New York, where "Too Jewish?" just closed, reportedly were alarmed at its aggressive style and postponed its opening.

Jewish Museum San Francisco board members, according to executive director Linda Steinberg, also grappled with whether to mount the show.

Ultimately, she says, they decided the questions it poses need to be asked.

"People who believe Jewish museums should be this warm, comfortable place are going to hate this," Steinberg says. "But again I ask: If a musem won't take on this kind of challenge, where is the forum for taking on these kinds of issues?"

Curator Norman L. Kleebatt says the exhibit's melange of audicious images challenge the "ethnic amnesia" that has allowed Jews to enter the art world over the last half century by veering away from overtly Jewish themes.

Through the 45-piece exhibit, 23 post-World War II artists revolt against that limitation, posing such questions as "Who are we?" and "Who represents us?" and "How do we represent ourselves?"

In essence, those artists are asking whether there is indeed such a thing as "too Jewish?"

"This exhibit presents enough themes for another century of museum shows," Steinberg says. "Everyone is going to have a reaction to this. It hits deeply."

To help museumgoers understand the complex issues, seminars, lectures and performances on Jewish identity and popular culture also are planned.

Regardless, the exhibit is likely to raise more than a few eyebrows. One piece apt to cause a strong reaction is "Chanel Chanukah," Rhonda Lieberman and Cary Liebowitz' unorthodox menorah made of nine Chanel lipsticks atop a quilted gold Chanel cosmetics bag. This parody of the Jewish American Princess stereotype sheds new light on a familiar ritual object.

And Lieberman's "Barbra Bush," a frosted Christmas tree festooned with six-pointed star ornaments bearing the young Barbra Streisand's picture, illustrates Jewish "Christmas envy" in a way few have seen before.

The pieces include paintings, drawings and sculpture, installation and video. What binds them is not style but a calculated, confrontational and often sly approach to questions of identity.

Part of a general trend of ethnic expression during the past decade, that approach has been capturing the imagination of more and more young Jews. Evidence: the success of Davka, a glossy new San Francisco-based national magazine that favors in-your-face Jewish cultural expression over the deliberate evasion of explicitly Jewish qualities.

That brazen banner is hungrily upheld by the "Too Jewish?" exhibit, which New York Observer writer Grace Glueck called "by turns funny, annoying, noodgy, repulsive, vivacious, gross and outrageous."

The display is divided into five areas: an introductory gallery, a video screening room, and sections titled "Re-Presenting Popular Culture," "Re-Inventing Ritual," and "Re-Considering the Ethnic Body."

The "Re-Considering" section contains, among other works, Adam Rolston's 1991 series of drawings of a nose job, and Dennis Kardon's casts of Jewish noses.

A related comment on the Jewish body comes via Hannah Wilke's "Venus Pareve." Her 1985 assemblage of multicolored nude women sculptures plays on the concept of pareve — neutral ingredients that can be eaten with either milk or meat, according to the laws of kosher.

"The admirable achievement of the `Too Jewish?' exhibit," art historian Linda Nochlin writes in the foreword to the exhibition catalog, "is that it destroys or sends up Jewish stereotypes (for better or for worse) at the same time that it powerfully and wittily evokes the range and variety of modern Jewish identities."

Among the events the Jewish Museum San Francisco is planning to help viewers grapple with the issues the exhibit raises are a three-part lunchtime series on "Jewish Women and American Popular Culture" that starts Oct. 8 and a three-part evening miniseries on "American Jewish Identity" that starts Nov. 14.

"We will really encourage people to look at these objects…and ask questions," Steinberg says.

Questions are expected. The exhibit's confrontational tone is immediate, with a row of blonde Barbie dolls (the epitome of the non-Jewish beauty ideal) facing a mannequin dressed in a Chassidic outfit complete with a fur hat and side curls. The outfit is part of a line of Chassidic male garb designed for the general public by French couturier Jean-Paul Gaultier. The designs caused a stir when they hit the runways in 1993.

Also in the introductory gallery is a video of Jews from popular television shows such as "The Goldbergs," "The Jack Benny Show," "Northern Exposure" and "Saturday Night Live." Jewish writers and performers created some of those images, many of which can only be called stereotypical.

Like many of the works in the exhibit, Steinberg says, the video raises important questions: "`Where do these stereotypes come from?' `To what extent have we bought into them?' `Why are they being perpetuated?' Somebody has to start asking these questions."

Following its stint at the Jewish Museum San Francisco, the exhibit will proceed to Los Angeles, where it will be shown at the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center at UCLA. It then will move on to the Contemporary museum in Baltimore.

Steinberg says she is proud that San Francisco's Jewish Museum is one of only two Jewish museums in the country to mount the exhibit.

It is doing so with the help of funders that include the Jewish Community Endowment Fund of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation; the California Arts Council; the Miriam and Peter Haas Fund; and the Samuel Bronfman Foundation.

"I've heard from other museum directors who don't want to touch it," Steinberg says. "I think the coup is that San Francisco, which is always described as very assimilationist, is so behind this."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.