To acquire wisdom, one must observe

WSRC features art of Helène Aylon, contemporary Jewish feminist artist

The Women’s Studies Research Center Kniznick Gallery is now displaying the final installment of Helène Aylon’s 20-year series.

Commissioned by Shula Reinharz Ph.D.’77 founder of the center, Aylon’s “Afterword: For the Children” is comprised of several wall installations and four separate digital videos projected onto a wall accompanied by sounds of rainfall emanating from an overhead speaker. On Tuesday, March 21, a reception and artist’s talk was held in the gallery at 6 p.m., where Aylon walked attendees through her career as an artist, highlighting several of her monumental works. “If my body of work could be summed up in three words,” Aylon contemplated, saying they would be, “body, earth, God.”

The first category, body, describes Aylon’s process art of the 1970s, when she was working in her Berkeley, CA, studio. During the artist’s talk, Aylon highlighted her 1978 series “The Breakings,” where she poured linseed oil on large panels, let them sit for a few months until a membrane had formed around the oil, and then tilted the panels so that the oil-filled “amniotic-like” sacs hung from the panels. Some sacs would burst immediately, while others leaked and dripped oil before shriveling up. Aylon, who was raised as an Orthodox Jew, commented that there, indeed, was a spiritual aspect to these works, comparing the fluidity of the oil to the fluidity of spirit.

In her second phase, Aylon produced works of eco-feminist and anti-nuclear art, like her performance piece “Earth Ambulance” in 1982. After procuring a van, Aylon strapped ambulance emblems onto it, loaded it up with pillowcases filled with dirt from nuclear bases, and drove it from Livermore, CA, to the United Nations, picking up and dropping off those who wanted to participate on the way. When she arrived, Aylon and her entourage emptied the pillowcases into frames outside the UN to protest nuclear war. When asked about the legality of this performance, the artist smiled and asserted with pride, “I never, ever asked for permission.”

Her last and current era of work deals with God in her hallmark series “The G-d Project: Nine Houses Without Women.” In this vein of work, Aylon critically engages the Torah and its patriarchal notions and language in nine different works over the span of 20 years. One of her most monumental works in this series, titled “The Liberation of G-d,” serves as a reference point for her later works, especially “Afterword: For the Children.” In “The Liberation,” Aylon laid transparent parchment paper over passages in the Torah and highlighted in pink marker passages that she felt were patriarchal. To Aylon, these passages are not attributed to God, but rather to authors with patriarchal and misogynistic mentalities.

However, Aylon’s use of pink highlighter to draw attention to these passages is merely to challenge their divine validity, not eliminate them. After all, the words are still visible under the marks she has made, and the paper can be separated from the holy texts as if the words were not brought into question at all. Aylon’s highlighting is the vessel through which our understanding and acceptance of these passages are investigated, and it is up to us to enact change and further engagement with these patriarchal sensibilities.

The exhibition has a concern for future generations and takes up a particular interest in the Second Commandment. One of the videos projected onto a wall in the gallery portrays Aylon before a panel of glass with text from Exodus 20:5 printed on it: “For I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me.” Aylon takes up a brush soaked with watery, pink paint and coats the words, challenging the notion that these words originated from a loving, forgiving God. The thin paint, of course, does not plaster over the words but, instead, falls down the surface of the words, channeling a similar effect of the pink highlighter in “The Liberation of G-d.” Aylon continues her investigation into these words, suggesting that we take up a more critical engagement with the holy texts, although not “repairing” the texts herself.

The exhibition has much more to offer, especially on the subject of a world inherited by future generations. “Afterword” is on display until June 16, and will subsequently travel to Israel to be displayed at the Jerusalem Biennale.

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