The Had Gadya (A Kid's Tale) is a folk song that follows Seder, the religious meal served in Jewish homes to begin the eight-day Passover festival. Sung in Aramaic, it aims to amuse restless children and to rouse well-fed adults who might be inclined to doze through the concluding sections of the Seder service.
The Had Gadya builds upon itself, like The House that Jack Built. A father buys his child a baby goat for two coins, but a cat eats the goat, a dog bites the cat and a stick punishes the dog. Fire burns the stick, but water extinguishes it. An ox sucks up the water and a ritual slaughterer (shohet) kills the ox. The Angel of Death dispatches the shohet. Finally, God eliminates the Angel of Death. The Had Gadya, which apparently dates to the late 16th century, is said by some to be an allegory of Jewish history.
In 1918-19, El Lissitzky illustrated the Had Gadya in paintings. Frank Stella saw these works in 1981 at the Tel Aviv Museum. One year later, he started work on 12 prints, each measuring 55 by 50 inches, which he called "Illustrations after El Lissitzky's Had Gadya." It took Stella two years to complete this project because his technique is so complex. The prints are hand-colored and collaged with lithographic, linoleum block, silkscreen and rubber relief printings.
Stella's Had Gadya prints are on view at the Spertus Museum through February of 2003. They mark the first appearance in the artist's work of cones and pillars, which are the basic imagery in his major reliefs of the mid '80s. We see cones, pillars, circles, triangles with holes in them, a form that suggests an air grille, and areas filled with expressive painted lines in several colors. Despite its interesting narrative background and the artist's obvious seriousness and skill, this work struck us as busy, dry and hard to read.
The Had Gadya prints are on loan from a family art collection. The catalogue of this collection publishes an intriguing comment from William Rubin of the Museum of Modern Art. "What Stella is about here," Rubin writes, "is an attempt to reclaim for painting as much of the narrative drama of older art as possible within what remains abstract imagery, yet to reclaim it more as a way of firing the artist's imagination than as a message for the viewer."
John McQueen's Sculptures
John McQueen, a Chicago-area artist who once made baskets, now weaves willow twigs into flat open work panels, which he ties together with wax string and builds into sculptural constructions. Some works are cage-like while others resemble familiar objects -- a book, a desk calendar, a painting. McQueen showed seven pedestal-mounted constructions and one wall piece at Perimeter Gallery in October and November.
Viewers can look inside and through these works from many angles to see internal patterns and relationships in three dimensions. McQueen gets a variety of textures, thicknesses and colors by using both green and mature twigs from different parts of the tree. Days Away (2002), a cube fashioned of yellow and red twigs, has a butterfly outlined in one corner and symbolic imagery woven into its exterior.
Forest for the Trees, a wall piece from 2000, suggests a painting composed of numerous dark lines. Each twig becomes a separate mark suspended in a tensely active six-inch-deep space. As the light in the room changes, visual relationships inside Forest for the Trees and the shadows it casts on the wall are transformed. We can even walk up to this work and look into its sides, where twigs are seen to emerge from its dark interior. To add visual interest, McQueen binds together this construction with translucent plastic ties instead of string.
McQueen puts unnecessary narrative and literary messages into these constructions. Forest for the Trees has two figures outlined in willow and imposed over the background. They are hard to make out and add nothing to the piece. Waking Instructions (2002), which looks like a desk calendar, has these words woven into it: ADRIFT, ASTIR, ASKEW, AROUSE, AGAPE, AFLAME, ASTRIDE, ATINGLE. We lose interest quickly in this mildly amusing text, which distracts from the visual relationships.
Dan Addington's Paintings
Dan Addington had his first solo exhibition at the Gwenda Jay/Addington Gallery in October and November. The artist combines acrylic, oil, fabric and collaged imagery with beeswax and tar to produce multilayered paintings. He begins by collaging patches of upholstery cloth onto a canvas-covered panel, adds paint, and then smoothes on encaustic, which softens the background and makes the work look old.
Next, Addington collages imagery from the anatomical treatises of Andreas Vesalius or photographs of angels from tombs. He often adds vines or other plants to his paintings and symbols of Irish Christianity and culture. The artist favors a dark palette, mostly browns and brick reds, and scratches into the surface of some pieces.
These works convey a sense of loss. Addington shows us disintegrating stone sculptures -- some angels are missing a wing -- and the human body with its skin removed. Vines grow everywhere in his paintings and we recognize the symbols of Ireland, a country that seems unable to overcome its past. Addington's work bespeaks an artist who is still developing his ideas. We will follow his career with interest.
Clubs where blue-collar men gather to socialize are dying institutions, says Paul D'Amato, a Chicago photographer. Until recently, D'Amato lived in Portland, Maine, where he discovered aged men playing cribbage at a place called Woodfords Club. Recognizing the photographic possibilities, he established a relationship with his subjects before he took their pictures. He exhibited the results in October and November at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Photography.
The men in D'Amato's photographs look very familiar and he records them honestly. We see Woodfords Club in Maine, an American Legion hall in Massachusetts, an Indiana Slovak society, a Boston bathhouse, and more. With respect and affection, D'Amato records working class traditions that will probably not survive into the next generation.