Painter and longtime gallerist Joel Mesler presents a body of new works at Cheim & Read’s uptown exhibition space this month, bringing together works on paper and new paintings under the title The Rabbis. In a dramatic shift from the artist’s prior work, the pieces here depict a series of Jewish Rabbis, continuing a long history of the depiction of these religious figures.
The legacy Mesler evokes through these works is conflicted. His grandfather, an Orthodox Jewish immigrant, lived the classic American Dream of making a fortune in a new land. Yet his own upbringing with his parents was tainted by alcoholism, dysfunction, and divorce — a “child of squandered privilege,” as he was described in a profile in The New York Times. A collector of rabbinical portraits himself, these images of benevolent and wise bearded men, some sad-eyed and world-weary, others piercing and empathic, seem to function as avatars of a more innocent time. They evoke the joy of bat and bar mitzvahs, the soul-searching of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkoth.
Each portrait is set against a single color, rendered in creamy brushstrokes across the canvas or stained into the surface of the paper, while the marks delineating the individual features are by turns frenzied and calligraphic, with an inventive palette of earth tones, pinks, reds, blues, and blacks. With their emotional immediacy and layers of latent meaning, these images depart from he deadpan humor of Mesler’s earlier work in a profound and moving way, another unexpected chapter in the artist’s narrative of twists and surprises.
Mesler’s works are a striking and powerful exploration of portraiture here, turning the classical act of religious and spiritual examination both inwards and outwards simultaneously, and exploring the interrelation of the artist’s own life, and his ties to his faith.
The show closes March 25th.
– C. Rhinehart
Joel Mesler: The Rabbis [Exhibition Site]