Inherited Memories, at Castelli Art Space in Culver City, is a graceful, poignant, intensely moving exhibition from Shula Singer Arbel, Dwora Fried, and Malka Nedivi. Each of the three artists has created powerful, transcendent work that deals with the fact their mothers survived the Holocaust. They acknowledge their mothers’ traumas and the way in which their mothers’ memories have affected their own work, and their own lives.
The result is rewarding, deep, and haunting, as the artists pay tribute to their mothers’ survival and serve as the next generation of witnesses to the horror and hate of the Holocaust. The work is important not just personally but contemporarily: our current political and social landscape has seen a devasting increase in hate craimes and anti-Semitism. To say we as a society “must never forget” the Holocaust is somewhat facile, for to not forget we must in fact remember, and to remember we need to evoke memories as passionate and profound as those which these three artists allow viewers to witness here.
Each artist shapes work in a different medium. Arbel’s paintings are lyrical and lovely, awash in a color palette that is achingly beautiful. What they represent are some deeply intimate places and events. In When We Were Whole #1, we see five people in a vivid inky blue with an inscription reading Chust 1933 beneath them. Chust was a town that was wholly devastated by the Holocaust. In Recovering an Interrupted Life, a rich green background includes swoops of darkness wavering like ghosts, and washes of yellow as if beams of sun were breaking through the dense green. This evocative background surrounds a line of five faceless people, a woman carrying a briefcase in the lead. They’ve made it through the terrifying darkness of the recent past, and now must stride onward, still a long journey passing out of the fecund growth of fear and hate. They are faceless: they have lives to reclaim, new selves to become. Similarly faceless except for one, seemingly blind white eye, a dark haired man with a sheet of paper is poised at a table surrounded by and colored in a deep midnight blue, the Administrator of Broken Lives.
Dwora Fried works in an entirely different medium: miniature mixed media shaped into intricate sculptural stories and placed inside the frame of wooden boxes. She also offers one large scluptural installation in this exhibition. Her always bold, immediate, and absolutely riveting work is brilliant here; frightening, sad — yet using deceptively cheerful colors, such as bright pink plastic dolls held in a wire cage, depicting The Lost Boys; or evoking the horror of Nazi experimentation in Conjoined. In the latter piece, she features a conjunction of two eerily salmon and pink plastic reindeer in front of a photographic image of dark, empty snow-tracked city streets. Christmas ornaments surround this aberration, while a nude doll watches from the very real shadows. In Pigeons, a large naked man wearing a military hat holds a small baby in his lap, another horrific image culled from the nightmare of the Holocaust. This boxed visual story is presented on two levels. Beneath him, two female figures are hung upside down as if they were deer hunted down in the woods, their bodies hung to drain.
Fried’s large installation, positioned upon entry to the gallery, features nude mannequin children above a top bunk bed. The bed, devoid of a mattress, is instead flled with vintage buttons. Suspended above a lower bunk is a smaller baby mannequin, floating as if levitating face down. A stylish red hat, red shoe, and purse are suspended and discarded around her; as is a delicate lamp shade and a menorrah. These all hang above a sea of more buttons strewn thickly across the lower bunk. Fried has said the buttons to some extent reference her mother’s survival through the efforts of a compassionate man to employ her in a button factory, but they are also emblematic of discarded possessions, as are the shoe, purse and hat, stolen from Holocaust victims.
Nedivi’s distinct, highly textured sculptural work utilizes plaster, fabric, and paper mache in a tactile form that resembles, but is not, encaustic. Her human figures are filled with a sense of aching beauty and loss, of bowed heads, of a mother whose hands caress and hold tight against her daughter. One large sculptural figure, male, seems to be longing to reach the figure of mother and child. The artist also includes two-dimensional works on cardboad, depcitions of female figures, one of whom exhibits the head slightly forward, bent, prayerful or resigned pose; the other with head held high but partially cut from view. The positioning of these works within the gallery add to the intensity of the exhibition.
Across from these works, a film runs, projected on the wall, depicting Nedivi’s mother, the hoarding behavior she exhibited later in life, and her everyday routines. In front of the film projection, a series of small sculptural houses rests, with gaping windows and doors. Who lived here once, and who will never live here again? Nedivi seems to ask. What house has been built from the ruins, what home lost?
The scars of the Holocaust run deep; they are confined by love but not limited by it, and are passed into the nature, the emotions, the very genetics of the daughters of these deeply scarred survivors. What makes this exhibition all the more powerful, is that if you lift the thematic backstory of the Holocaust from it, viewers would still feel, as if imprinted in their bones, the fear, the hope, the longing, the aching and terrible loss in each of these creations even without even knowing their genesis.
Fried’s work may well be the most charged: hers is an invocation to not only remember but to act, to preserve, to bear witness, and in doing so attempt to make certain this horror does not happen again and evil — which is out there, seething — does not triumph. Arbel’s work uses the most traditional medium — the painted image — to convey dark but hopeful stories of survival and remembrance. Her works are fused with both passion and elegy. And with Nedivi’s works, we are confronted with a great and profound sadness, one that is still rooted in hope, blooming along with the wonderful resilliance of the human spirit, with the reclaiming and making beautiful of scars. Her often elongated figures resemble Modigliani in part, they are dancers in a mournful but wonderful ballet of life, caught in a single moment, reaching out.
The impact of the Holocaust is not just felt by these artists, but is shared by all of us. Like seeds carried in the wind, its memory must be allowed to grow and flourish, not be hidden or snuffed out. We must, these artists seem to attest, embrace the terror, the darkness, the evil; acknowledge its prescence, and use it to overcome and prevent a darker-still future. We must feel, empathize, embrace, endure, and reshape. In just such a way, Fried, Arbel, and Nedivi have reshaped their mothers’ terrible pasts, and made their own legacies into something amazingly wonderful: into art.
If art is the salvation of the soul — and it seems here, certainly, that it is, then these three artists have saved not only their own, but those of viewers who have seen and been transformed by their work and vision.