NiSh’ma – Mystery & Awe

October 5, 2009
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Bonita Helmer

According to the Kabbalah (the hidden mystical structure of the universe) the world was created as a great Tree of Existence.  This great tree is composed of four separate worlds connected by the Jacob’s Ladder.  The highest world (Azilut), the World of Emanation, the next is the World of Creation  (Beriah), then the World of Formation (Yetzirah) and finally the World of Action (Asiyah).

Within the center of the structure of the universe (“the great tree”), the Kabbalah also describes levels of existence relating to the individual.   The Keter, at the top of the head (the crown and origin), the Daat, in the center of the throat (understanding and knowledge)  then in the center of body at Tefiret (beauty) thus forming the spiritual world.  The Tefiret then joins with  Yesod (foundation)  in the groin area and Malkut (the divine body), which is at the bottom of the feet and represents the physical world.  These levels are the center pole and core of the Sfirot system.

I have created four different interpretations of the Four Worlds of Existence.  Each painting is constructed with four separate panels reading as one complete work.

The complexity of this “charting” of the universe, and the human nature within, has been a challenge as an artist.  Painting this series has been a combination of using the mind, body, and spirit  Approaching this subject has been a sacred experience.  The wisdom of the ancient masters, in documenting this “unseen” structure never ceases to amaze me as I wander through the depths and try to personally capture these abstract concepts through images in paint.

Bonita Helmer  2000 – 2003

No one is available

Ken Aptekar

60″ X 60″

four panels, oil/wood, sandblasted glass, bolts

After Robert Campin, The Nativity, 1420, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon, France Private Collection

The painting is one of a series of works I made exploring the meaning of angels from a Jewish point of view. There’s something of the wonderment of the notion of heaven in Tuvia Katz’s painting “Between Heaven and Earth.”

Angels of the sort I found in an alterpiece in Dijon, France, by Robert Campin answer questions that were unanswerable in the 15th c. because of the limits of knowledge. I tried to find corollaries today for the messages that angels used to deliver back then. Mystery, wonder and awe reside for me, for example, in how the Internet works, which as far as I can tell, no one really understands. The ribbon with words spiraling around the angel is, for me the antecedent of a variety of disembodied contemporary communications, which in this work float over my painting. The text sandblasted on glass bolted over Campin’s angel reads:  “no one is available to take your call, you may have shut down improperly, for museum gift shop hours press three, please enter your pin number, accident in right lane ahead, you will prosper and have long happy life, server does not have DNS entry, seventh floor: intimate apparel, adjustments.”

Ruth Kestenbaum Ben-Dov

Immersion 1, 1997, oil on canvas, 130 X 90 cm., 51 X 35″

This painting touches on the mystery of immersion in the mikve, a place that juxtaposes free-flowing water with an enclosed and claustrophobic space; and birth – or a potential for new life – with its absence or loss.

A larger dialogue that lies in the background of this work is that between Christianity, a central source for western painting, and Judaism, with their differing attitudes toward the body on the one hand and art on the other. Traditional Judaism involves itself in minute details of the body, including meticulous discussions on menstrual blood, yet its central medium of expression is the written and spoken word. Christianity chose to reject “Carnal Israel”, preferring spirit to body, yet after much controversy selected painting, sensual and figurative, as one of its central religious languages.

In my ongoing search for understanding the complex relationship between Judaism and art, one of the first places from which I embarked was this small human-size underwater space, one that touches on mythic and enigmatic layers in our culture.

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