Faith-based initiative

Pub date June 3, 2008
WriterGlen Helfand
SectionArts & CultureSectionVisual Art

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REVIEW The Contemporary Jewish Museum was founded in 1984 as the Jewish Museum San Francisco, and "starchitect" Daniel Libeskind’s building design, which seemingly bursts out of an 1881 vintage brick facade opposite Yerba Buena Gardens, began taking shape nearly a decade ago. But for all intents and purposes, the CJM’s opening this week marks the launch of a new art space that must affirm its brand identity on our cultural landscape. The folks behind this identity-based museum aim to instill a sense of belief in the place as a meaningful institution and to lure repeat visitors — Jews and non-Jews alike. With a prominent public location — and what could be a decent café — the odds are in its favor.

Other factors might continue that momentum. The building itself is a bold yet restrained move by an architect whose Jewish Museum in Berlin tends to overshadow its contents. The CJM, however, succeeds in feeling both formidable and intimate. The spaces balance form and function: they look good and seem like they can accommodate and contextualize the works within. Still, the programming itself should be the primary element in attracting viewers.

The opening offerings include a delightful survey of work by the New Yorker cartoonist William Steig, organized by the Jewish Museum, New York, and a sound series selected by John Zorn. But the centerpiece exhibition, "In the Beginning: Artists Respond to Genesis" — an ambitious, CJM-organized conglomeration of newly commissioned installations and historical and contemporary artworks and artifacts — is a clear sign the admin is taking the museum’s challenge seriously and thinking big.

The show is designed to offer entry points to a range of viewers, its biblical foundation rooted in the Old Testament volume of Genesis, which speaks to Christians and Jews and allows the concept of creation to relate to art, religion, and science. The curators — museum director Connie Wolf, deputy director Fred Wasserman, and assistant curator Dara Solomon — abide by an imperative not to restrict exhibited works to pieces by Jewish makers. "In the Beginning" unfolds in a hallway antechamber with a flat-screen monitor displaying a grainy video of images of the Earth and the moon as seen from Apollo 8, television footage widely seen on Christmas Eve 1968, with audio of the astronauts reading the opening verses of Genesis. The inclusion points to a curatorial openness to pop-cultural artifacts as part of a contemporary art dialogue.

The seven commissioned installations are the headliners in the expansive temporary exhibition space, and they’re by a deliberately diverse group of artists. There are pieces by Matthew Ritchie and Trenton Doyle Hancock, artists who set down complex personalized cosmologies that essentially are their own elaborate creation myths, and both manage to create works with visual appeal. For a piece titled Day One, Ritchie uses a couple of gently angled walls for a graphically ornate mural that accommodates orb-shaped projections of roiling, animated landscapes, sun flares, flocks of ambiguous black shapes, and a soundtrack of the artist pondering existence and creation. A more rambunctious spirit pervades Hancock’s In the Beginning There Was the End, in the End There Was the Beginning, which is set against dizzying cartoonlike wallpaper and depicts a mythological narrative involving characters called Mounds and lowly Vegans.

The exhibit’s inspiration is literary, and text appears frequently, as in the somewhat vertigo-inducing animated work by Shirley Shor, an ex-Bay Area resident who swirls projections, in English and Hebrew, of Web-gathered references to Genesis down a wishing-well structure. Ben Rubin contributes God’s Breath Hovering over the Waters (His Master’s Voice), a sound sculpture inspired by an antenna developed by Bell Labs physicists in the 1960s that, according to the artist, led to audible evidence of the Big Bang. A Kabbalistic-inspired work by Mierle Laderman Ukeles is the show’s most spiritual, and involves layered audience participation including forging a personal covenant with the artist, the public, and the self.

Filmmaker Alan Berliner adds a more crowd-pleasing form of participation with Playing God, a satisfying interactive, seven-channel video — one for each day of creation — installation that emulates a slot machine as it generates phrases with words from Genesis. Audio-visual jackpots can be had, and pushing the glowing buttons quickly becomes addictive.

The show’s inclusion of historical and archival material is a riskier gambit. While designed to enrich the exhibition themes, adding objects such as a 15th-century biblical manuscript page, a Tiepolo drawing, Tom Marioni’s shadowbox assemblages, and Barnett Newman’s 1948 painting Onement II starts to seem cluttered, or, as they say in Yiddish, ungehpotchkeyed. Still, the "something for everyone" approach clearly stems from a gracious perspective or brand, not an obfuscating one. And that’s a curatorial position worth a return visit.


Opening exhibits include "In the Beginning: Artists Respond to Genesis," Sun/8–Jan. 4, 2009; opening events include "Dawn 2008," Sat/7, 8 p.m., $10-$15 with Dengue Fever and Jonathan Safran Foer; grand opening Sun/8, 10 a.m. ribbon-cutting, 11 a.m. doors, free.

Contemporary Jewish Museum

736 Mission, SF

(415) 655-7800,