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Who you are how you see it; Art: An exhibit in Owings Mills raises questions of identity that apply not only to Jewish-Americans but to all ethnic groups.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Dennis Kardon's painting "Lover's Quarrel" goes to the heart of the matter. It's a double self-portrait shown from the back, and the two representations of Kardon are attached at the shoulder as if he were Siamese twins. On one of his two heads he wears a yarmulke (Jewish skullcap); on the other, a baseball cap.

The painting makes visual a number of questions raised by the exhibit "Too Jewish?" opening today in Owings Mills. If you're a Jewish-American, to what extent are you Jewish and to what extent are you American? Is it impossible to be both at the same time? Are you always scarred by this duality, like the visible scar on the back of the Kardon twins? Is it possible to have a Jewish identity without sacrificing your American identity and vice versa?

To discover this show's wider relevance, substitute your own subgroup for Jewish in the paragraph above: If you're Polish/African- Ameri-can/gay/Catholic/fe-male/Asian-American, to what extent are you ?

"Too Jewish: Challenging Traditional Identities" brings together 45 works -- from painting and sculpture to videos and installations -- by 23 Jewish artists on the subject of Jewish identity. A national touring show organized by Norman Kleeblatt of New York's Jewish Museum, it opened there in March of last yearand has so far traveled to San Francisco and Los Angeles.

It is presented in Baltimore jointly by the Jewish Museum of Maryland and the Contemporary Museum. The latter is Baltimore's "museum without walls," which presents contemporary art in temporary sites -- including other museums such as the Maryland Historical Society, the Walters Art Gallery and the Baltimore Museum of Industry.

"For the Contemporary, it's the first project in Baltimore County and the first initiative outside Baltimore City," says Contemporary curator Lisa Corrin. For the Jewish Museum of Maryland, it's the first contemporary show.

Because the museum's permanent home, on Lloyd Street, is currently undergoing expansion, the installation is in a vacant retail site at 10377 Reisterstown Road in the Garrison Forest Plaza shopping center.

The site provides a generous 11,000 square feet, allowing for an expansive installation of the show, plus a resource room and other spaces. Also, "It's the epicenter of where a young generation of the Jewish community is moving," says Jewish Museum of Maryland curator Barry Kessler. "And it allows a downtown institution to reach out and do something in this neighborhood." But, he adds, the Owings Mills area is not solely a Jewish community. "And the show is universalized," he says. It's not subject-specific only to Jews."

A trend in art

The show picks up on one of the most popular trends of recent art history -- the subject of identity.

Among the leading shows of the genre have been "The Decade Show," presented at three New York museums in 1990 and exploring Asian-American, African-American and Hispanic identities; "Mining the Museum," a 1992 collaboration between the Contemporary Museum and the Maryland Historical Society dealing with African-American identity and created by New York artist Fred Wilson; "Asia/America: Identities in Contemporary Asian American Art" at New York's Asia Society in 1994; and last year's "Sexual Politics," exploring feminist art, at the Armand Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.

An important book on the subject is critic Lucy Lippard's "Mixed Blessings: New Art in a Multicultural America," published in 1990.

But, "Jewish identity has until now played a minor role in both the writing about and the exhibition of identity-based art," writes Kleeblatt in the exhibit's catalog. "While Jews certainly have been included in some of the exhibitions of [identity-based] art, it has not been for their Jewishness, but for their primary public identities as, for example, women, Holocaust survivors, lesbians, gay men."

The reason for this omission, Kleeblatt adds, lies at least partly in the successful assimilation of Jews in postwar American society. Termed by Kleeblatt an "empowered minority," Jews have moved more and more into mainstream society, but the price has often been their Jewish identity.

The show has been appreciated for its serious themes and also for its sometimes light approach. "With its rich, and often hilarious, commentary on the melding of Jewishness, gender, sexuality, and class in postwar American culture," wrote Carol Ockman in Artforum magazine, "this exhibition makes one of the most compelling cases to date for the irreducibility of identity."

"The work in this show, to its credit, is different from much of the race-based, gender-based and ethnic-based stuff that has swamped the art scene in the last decade," wrote Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times. "First of all, it has got a sense of humor about itself (some of it does, at least), and second, it isn't the usual victim art."

There are three sections: identity and the body; popular culture and its effect on Jewish life; and an examination of religious ritual in the context of the larger society.

Like Kardon's "Lover's Quarrel," his "Jewish Noses" is located, of course, in the "Ethnic Body" section. It consists of wall-mounted sculptures, taken from life, of 49 Jewish figures in the New York art world -- artists, dealers, critics, collectors and curators including Kleeblatt himself. There are long noses, short noses, fat noses, thin noses, big noses, little noses. "It shows how people are impossible to stereotype ethnically by their noses," says Kessler, so it parodies the stereotyping of Jews by the "Jewish nose."

On the other hand, Deborah Kass' "Four Barbras (the Jewish Jackie Series)," a multiple portrait of Barbra Streisand in the manner of Andy Warhol's celebrity portraits, seems to raise to icon status what Kleeblatt calls "Streisand's ethnically specific features." And it raises the question of whether Warhol left Streisand out of his pantheon of famous Americans including Jackie Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe because Streisand was "too Jewish."

Confronting stereotype

If this piece seems to suggest that there are such things as "ethnically specific features," it does so to confront stereotype. "The best way to call bigotry's bluff is to flaunt stereotypes in people's faces full force," says Kleeblatt.

Neil Goldberg's multiple portrait, "Shecky," in the popular-culture section, confronts a similar issue. It features six portraits of Jewish comedians of the Catskills "Borscht Belt," including Jack Carter, Alan King and Shecky Green. It seeks to rescue Jewish comedy from the "too Jewish" category by emphasizing its very Jewishness. The portraits are mounted on matzo.

Other works reflect the blending of Jewish and the larger, homogenizing American culture, and the identity difficulties it presents. For "Barbra Bush," Rhonda Lieberman placed depictions of Barbra Streisand on six-pointed "Jewish" stars and hung them on a Christmas tree. In Lieberman's and Cary Leibowitz's "Chanel Hanukkah," a purse emblazoned with the Chanel logo (representing American consumerism) is topped by nine lipsticks referring to the Hanukkah menorah. Adam Rolston, again a la Andy Warhol, contributes a 6-foot-by-6-foot painting of a package of "Manischewitz American Matzos" with "American" in letters about four times as big as "matzos."

Archie Rand's "The Chapter Paintings," in the ritual section, deal with the duality of heritage. There is a painting based on each of the 54 sections of the traditional reading cycle of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). But the paintings are also based stylistically on modern artists and art movements, such as surrealism, abstract expressionism, pop art, Paul Klee, Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. The painting "Vayikkra," from the book of Leviticus, is done with the bright colors and flattening of space associated with turn-of-the-century art by figures such as Gauguin and Matisse.

Now that "Too Jewish" has opened a new door for identity-based art, Kleeblatt hopes it will stay open. "I hope that in future multicultural shows the Jewish issue will not be ignored," he says.

Art show

What: "Too Jewish? Challenging Traditional Identities"

Where: 10377 Reisterstown Road in Garrison Forest Plaza shopping center

When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays, Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays; 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays, through June 29. The show will be closed tomorrow through Wednesday and April 28-29 for Passover and June 11-12 for Shavuot.

Admission: $4 adults, children under 12 admitted free Call: 410-333-8600 (the Contemporary Museum) or 410-732-6400 (the Jewish Museum of Maryland)

Pub Date: 4/20/97

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