Contemporary Judaica 

Anika Smulovitz brings contemporary Judaica to Boise State

Torah pointer, mezuzah, tallis. In the hands of local artist and Boise State professor Anika Smulovitz, these items retain their form, but take on a differently profound significance as works of art as she explores the symbols of Judaica. In her upcoming solo exhibit, "Contemporary Judaica," which runs through Friday, Oct. 22, at the Visual Arts Center at Boise State, Smulovitz's work with Judaica shows not only a study of the religious import of items but also an examination of Jewish culture through these objects and an exploration of their ritual importance.

Smulovitz, who has been teaching art at Boise State for seven years, will serve as interim chair for the fall semester while department chair Richard Young is on sabbatical. Interestingly, it was on her own sabbatical about two years ago that this particular exhibit began to take shape.

Smulovitz has long studied Judaica both academically and artistically--one of the pieces she contemplated using in the exhibit is her BFA thesis piece from 1997. And a couple of years ago, two of her Torah pointers became part of the permanent collection at the Jewish Museum in New York. While attending the opening of that exhibit, Smulovitz discovered a renewed interest in exploring Judaica in a contemporary sense.

"When I was an undergrad, I thought I would go solely into making Judaica," said Smulovitz, an artist well-known for her metal work, especially her jewelry. "That's one of the reasons I chose University of Wisconsin to go to grad school because there was a Jewish professor there who did Judaica. I've continued to make Judaica through the years, but ... the acquisition of the work into the Jewish Museum really got me back into looking at this work."

Utilizing sacred iconography as a way to explore humanity's relationship with faith is a theme many artists have pursued, often pushing the boundaries of what the faithful find acceptable--Cavallaro's Chocolate Jesus or Serrano's Piss Christ. But where works like that question faith, Smulovitz's Judaica is not an interrogation of religion. It is instead an exploration of Judaism through valued objects important to its practice. But by taking objects out of the sacred realm and into the secular, an artist runs the risk of sacrilege. For example, one of Smulovitz's pieces in the Jewish Museum is a Torah pointer with sand encased on the end where it is held and a wheel where the pointer would be. In her description of the piece on her website, Smulovitz explains, "The wheel pointer can be interpreted as a metaphorical connection to the Jewish people's early forced nomadic life or any of the other exiles that have been endured throughout Jewish history. It can also symbolize a surveyor's wheel in reference to the use of the Torah in the current territory disputes in Israel."

It is a sublime piece, but the pointer has been rendered unusable for its intended purpose. Daniel Belasco holds a Ph.D. from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York and is the Henry J. Leir Associate Curator at the Jewish Museum. He is also an art historian specializing in post war and contemporary art and design. Belasco will give a lecture at the Student Union Building on Thursday, Oct. 7, as part of Smulovitz's exhibit. In his lecture, he will discuss "five key methods artists use to create contemporary Judaica: chance operations, mash-up, hybridization, repurposing and inversion."

When asked via e-mail if he thought Smulovitz's work veered into sacrilegium, or if because it is finely crafted high art, it transcends any kind of sacred vs. secular argument, Belasco had this response:

"I consider Anika Smulovitz one of the leading American artists exploring the possibilities in using the forms of Judaica to ask important questions about Judaism and Jewish culture," Belasco wrote.

"Far from either degrading the sacred utility of ritual objects or getting caught in some endless spin cycle of debate between sacred and secular, her objects make us think about ritual in new and important ways. They in fact invigorate the often moribund conversation around ritual, which generally gets a bad rap in our culture as rote, mindless or repetitive.

"Anika's Judaica makes ritual exciting and new, relevant and fresh. They enlighten us about ancient debates and practices that can shed light on contemporary issues, and vice versa. To make great Judaica is no easy task, because it involves both a deep knowledge of tradition as well as an artist's intuitive ability to invest that tradition with creativity."

Because an Idaho audience may not, on the whole, be very familiar with Judaism or Judaica, Smulovitz wanted to make sure that viewers could connect with this body of work. Each piece encased behind plexiglass is accompanied by a plaque that explains what the piece's functionality is and her inspiration behind it.

Tree of Life (Torah pointer) is a piece in hand-forged sterling silver, in which the cylindrical shape has been modified and the "pointer" emerges from a concave leaf.

"The Torah is referred to as the tree of life. This torah pointer honors this title and the Torah's reverence and connection to nature.

"I think this is going to be an interesting learning experience for anyone who wants to partake in the exhibit and the lecture," Smulovitz said. "It's definitely something that may never have been done in Idaho, certainly not a contemporary Judaica exhibit."

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