Facing East explores Mizrachi, Asian influences on art, modern Jewish culture

Calling her life “a mixed-media collage,” San Leandro artist Andrea Guskin, daughter of Brooklyn Jews and married to a man who was raised Hindu, shapes a personal story of Jewish encounter with Asian influences in “Further East: Library Cave.”

“Fish” by Jane Rice

Judaism and Buddhism have both been major influences in the life and art of Guskin, one of 31 Bay Area artists exhibiting in “Facing East: A Jewish Orientation” at the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. The show, which runs through Aug. 3, features painting, sculpture, paper, textiles, graphic arts and mixed media.

Her three-piece collage uses tape, thread, paint, maps, scraps of Hebrew lettering, and photographic transparencies that capture images of shadows she and her children found at home.

Guskin, who grew up in college towns in the Midwest and studied art at Antioch College, studied Buddhism with Tibetan and Zen teachers in India, and her current day job is as family programs manager at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Her two sons have one name each from the Indian and Jewish traditions.

Each of the small canvases in her exhibit tells a story of the Mogao Caves in China, near the easternmost end of the great medieval trade route known as the Silk Road. The caves are famed for their rich repository of Buddhist paintings, sculptures and literary works. Inside the caves on the eve of World War I, archaeologist Sir Aurel Stein, a baptized British-Hungarian Jew, discovered the Diamond Sutra, the world’s oldest-known printed book to bear a publication date. In Guskin’s second canvas, the figure of Stein, rendered in white thread sewn over a black background, bends over his discovery by candlelight.

Thread, for Guskin, symbolizes her own complex relationship with domesticity. “I love the idea of sitting at home sewing this canvas of abstract forms,” she says. “I want to be with my kids, I love my family life, but this whole other part of my identity has to be there, too.”

“4 Leafless Trees” by Jane Rice

Her recent work focuses on caves, domesticity, and the mingling of multiple heritages: “What is home? What is intimacy? What is refuge? … How does this ancient interaction of cultures look? How do I imagine it?”

For the exhibition, “we asked artists to explore the Jewish East in their own contemporary terms, and they have engaged enthusiastically and creatively with the subject,” said curator Elayne Grossbard at the March 23 opening. Grossbard’s talk focused on the meaning of the geographic East to Jews, the hamsa as an emblem of empowerment for Mizrachi and how “Orientalism” in Western painting of Jewish and Eastern subjects informed the ways Jews saw themselves.

Mizrach itself is the Hebrew word for “east.” The walls surrounding the library space are filled with Eastern symbols and figurative and literal echoes of lech lecha, Hebrew for “go forth” or “depart” from one’s land of birth. These include lions, ascending steps, maps, caravans and caves, and the hamsa as protector and symbol.

Elizheva Hurvich’s plaster cast sculpture “Facing Inward” offers a torso of a human figure containing a map of Jerusalem, seen only when the viewer’s gaze shifts to look from beneath. Jennifer Kaufman’s “A Margin, an Utterance, a Gesture at Dawn” uses black media tape to create forms against the white backdrop of one of the library’s columns, and seems to echo mystical references to a “black fire on white fire.” In Rabbi Gordon Freeman’s “Pilgrimage,” a pair of shoes at the foot of 15 steps, rendered in three-dimensional mixed media, references the 15 Songs of Ascent in the Psalms. (Freeman is rabbi emeritus of Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek.) Andréa Guerra’s “Lech Lecha” offers a gelatin silver print of another empty pair of boots, worn after long traveling.

In “Ming’s Noodles, or The Secret Life of Trees and Rice,” a 24-by-36-inch framed story in the form of a rebus, Laynie Tzena assembles words and pictures into a seamless whole, telling a quintessentially Jewish tale both piquant and poignant. “All my pieces are in some way about belonging,” she says.

“Further East: Library Cave” (part 1) by Andrea Guskin

“I’m a storyteller,” adds Tzena, who describes herself as a writer-performer-visual artist influenced by jazz, hieroglyphics and comics, and by Roy Lichtenstein, Woody Allen and Thelonious Monk. A songwriter and poet from childhood, she earned a master of fine arts and first came to the Bay Area to work in standup.

The story of “Ming’s Noodles” reveals an immersion in the lore of Chinese food and the sense of exclusion common to Jewish and Chinese Americans.

As the sky darkens against the windowpanes of the library, Jane Rice’s 16 white cutouts from Arches paper (a high-quality air-dried paper) come into stark relief. Collectively titled “In the Manner of Mizrach,” the pieces were inspired by Hannah Senesh’s poem “Eli, Eli.” Rice, a poet recently turned self-taught artist, seeks to capture Senesh’s sense of “the sand and the sea, the rush of the waters … the prayer of the heart.”

Retired as academic director of English-language programs for the U.C. Berkeley extension campus in San Francisco, Rice now serves as president of the Jewish Community Library. Drawn freehand and shaped with a sharp, pen-like knife, the 22-by-30-inch cutouts depict vines, trees, plants, fish, the sun, and Hebrew and English letters in a vibrant dance of motion across the windows.

The work is in part Rice’s exploration of what it means to be Jewish. A Jew-by-choice who formally converted three years ago, she found the library’s books and staff “a huge inspiration for me, in terms of really getting support.”

Meanwhile, Grossbard emphasizes that “Facing East” is not simply about “compass east,” but about East in a larger sense. On the one hand, there is “what we think of as Zion East — and by extension the Torah ark and the Eastern wall,” or the direction of prayer. But she also points to a universal concept of East, in such metaphors as the rising of the sun. The Mizrach plaques placed on east-facing walls often include lines from Psalms 113:3, which speaks of “the entire universe acclaiming God.”

“Facing East: A Jewish Orientation” runs through Aug. 3 at the Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis St., S.F. www.jewishlearningworks.org