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An exhibit of biblical depictions
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An exhibit of biblical depictions

At Rider University, the ‘Old Testament’ inspires new images

Siona Benjamin’s The Four Mothers Who Entered Pardes, one of six hand-printed silk banners, each 6 feet by 3 feet
Siona Benjamin’s The Four Mothers Who Entered Pardes, one of six hand-printed silk banners, each 6 feet by 3 feet

After a party in Princeton at the home of artist and physician Marc Malberg, Judith Brodsky realized she knew several artists who “were going back to the Bible and making images that were derived from the Bible when we are in an age that discounts religion.”

Malberg himself, when he wasn’t performing surgery was creating “huge, ambitious paintings based on Old Testament themes, but never showed them because his day job is being an orthopedic surgeon,” said Brodsky.

A professor emerita in the Department of Visual Arts at Rutgers University, Brodsky began to conceive of a show of such works.

The result is “Biblical Inspiration in a Secular Time,” an exhibit of works by Malberg, and four other artists: Siona Benjamin, also of New Jersey, and Helène Aylon, Hanan Harchol, and Archie Rand of New York. It opens Nov. 5 and runs through Dec. 6, at the Rider University Art Gallery on the Lawrenceville campus.

“Each artist is transforming what they are reading [in the Bible] and interpreting what they are reading into very contemporary forms,” Brodsky said. “The Bible becomes a living thing again.”

Aylon, raised in New York in an Orthodox family, began her artistic journey as a minimalist, influenced by her teacher, Ad Reinhardt. In the 1980s she morphed into an “ecofeminist” performance artist, creating performance pieces like a truck outfitted as an ambulance. “The idea was to go and rescue civilization,” Brodsky said. 

Also in the 1980s Aylon — whose son, Nat Fisch, lives in Princeton — started to do feminist takes on the Bible. “Her thought is that God was kind of hijacked by men, that both Judaism and Christianity are very male and patriarchal,” Brodsky said.

Aylon’s “Wailing Wall” is a freestanding wall with pages from a whole Bible in Hebrew on one side and in English on the other. Harry Naar, professor of fine arts at Rider University and director of the art gallery, told NJJN that the piece represents “the power of her femininity,” because it stands by itself, “big, firm, and bold.”

Benjamin was born in Mumbai and comes from the Bene Israel, an Indian-Jewish community that goes back to the time of Alexander the Great. Benjamin, who now lives in Montclair, was attracted to Old Testament heroines because they reflected her own sense of rootlessness, said Brodsky. Her work incudes images of Lilith, who according to midrash was Adam’s banished first wife, and Hagar, Abraham’s second wife, whom he sent into the desert at Sarah’s request. “She got really interested in these women who, in essence, are excommunicated, thrust outside the mainstream,” Brodsky said. In Benjamin’s paintings, these heroines of the Torah are dressed in Indian garments.

Rand, who has been showing his work in New York galleries since he was 17, was chair of the art department at Columbia University, and is now Presidential Professor of Art at Brooklyn College. Earlier in his career he was commissioned to paint huge murals at Congregation B’nai Yosef in Brooklyn, which brought him to the figurative imagery of the Old Testament. The Rider show will present 60 of his paintings of biblical images in a contemporary style, with word balloons that use contemporary language. 

Harchol, a video animation artist, was Brodsky’s student at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers. He was commissioned by the Covenant Foundation — which is devoted to “Celebrating Excellence and Innovation in Jewish Education” — and the now-defunct Jewish Cultural Fund to make a series of animations based on Old Testament themes, Brodsky said. The series “Food for Jewish Thought” was created, Brodsky said, “with the idea of making something that would appeal to millennials, who are not interested in ritual and tradition, but might be inspired by ethical, moral principles.” The exhibit will include three videos of the artist in conversation with his parents.

Malberg, a member of Temple Beth El in Hillsborough, is a first-generation American. Born on a farm in Hillsborough, he had scant time to pursue his artistic interests because summers and vacations were spent working on his family’s farm. At Somerville High School, art classes came second to college prep. As an undergrad at Rutgers, he indulged his love of art by going to galleries and museums on campus and in New York; the painter he most admired was Rembrandt, but a Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit of Salvador Dali’s work pushed him toward surrealism.

Malberg, who is associate clinical professor of orthopedic surgery at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, had no formal education in art when he took up painting in earnest. Two of his paintings were inspired by his family’s experience in the Holocaust: His grandfather worked his way to America from Josefow, Poland, and sent for his three youngest sons, one of whom was Malberg’s father, in the 1930s. An older brother escaped to Palestine, but the older sister, married and unable to leave, was one of 3,000 Jews shot in the head, one by one, in Josefow. After discovering this fact in a New York Times book review, Malberg used the only extant picture of his aunt to create a painting that depicts her standing in front of a grove of trees, looking toward the viewer. Behind her is a uniformed figure and the round barrel of a shotgun.

After completing one more painting with a Holocaust theme, Malberg shifted to interpreting familiar biblical stories: “I tried to do a take on them that wasn’t exactly what I was taught,” he said. 

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