"Birdman" brings Baskin to OJMCHE

PHOTO: Museum-goers take in works from "The Great Birdman" at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education at a members' reception for the exhibit's opening Sunday, Oct. 8. (Mario Gallucci/OJMCHE)

The Jewish Review
The title of the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education’s new exhibit of Leonard Baskin’s work is, on the surface, descriptive of much of what is inside, but the reality of the exhibit runs much deeper. 
“He had a fascination with winged creatures of all kinds,” curator Kenny Helphand said. “He saw this as analogous to the human condition.”
“The Great Birdman,” on display at the museum through Jan. 28, 2024, shows a broad sampling of Baskin’s work, much of it lent from the artist’s niece, Judith Baskin and co-curated by her and Helphand. People, birds, and angels are all constants throughout Baskin’s work, and the lines between them often blur. 
“Many people talk about Baskin and the importance of his human figures, and how this really shows his connection to humanity,” OMJCHE Executive Director Judy Margles said. “But it is these winged creatures for me that just soar, to use a bad metaphor.”
Baskin was born in 1922 in Brunswick, NJ, the son of an Orthodox Rabbi. His knowledge of Judaism, furthered through a yeshiva education, often sprung up in his work. 
“He was absolutely fascinated with the Binding of Isaac. Really, a continuing theme throughout his work,” Margles said. “Similarly, he was fascinated with angels, both benevolent angels and death dwelling, death dealing angels.”
A wall of the exhibit is devoted to his work on Jewish themes – on one end is a rendition of the Binding of Isaac which Baskin titled “The Sacrifice of Isaac,” in which the two patriarchs, Abraham and Isaac, are two faces on the same head, opposite one another. There are portraits of other biblical figures and a whimsical rendering of Maimonides among other works. 
Portraiture was a mainstay of Baskin’s work and an outlet for his ideas of humanity. While Baskin rejected the abstract expressionism that was popular throughout much of his life, his representations are often inexact, with exaggerations and malformities that serve to humanize his subjects – even when he served that role for himself; a wall is devoted to Baskin’s self portraits. 
“Our enveloping sack of beef and ash is yet a glory,” he wrote. “The human figure is the image of all men and of one man. It contains all and can express all.”
“His portraits are incredibly insightful and also, I think, very directly trying to reveal something about the character of the individual that he’s portraying,“ Helphand said.
While Baskin saw himself first as a sculptor – the center of the exhibit includes a two-feet tall bird sculpture with distinctly human features - he was also a printmaker, founding Gehenna Press in 1942 as one of the first American fine art presses. In addition to publishing his own work and others through the press, he illustrated other books, most famously “A Passover Haggadah” for the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinical assembly of the American Reform movement. 
He also illustrated a guidebook for the Little Big Horn Battlefield historic site in 1968 for the National Park Service, which led him to dig further into Native American life. He came to view the treatment of North America’s indigenous populations as a genocide on par with the Shoah (Holocaust). He went on to complete two collections of portraits of Native Americans, released nearly 20 years apart. 
“He was a person who was learning his whole life and willing to acknowledge, to change his views as he learned more,” Margles said. “He never took his eyes off of world history and the history of the Jewish world, and this struck him as such an injustice and led to a lifelong pursuit of Native American art and culture in a profound way.”
Also on display at the museum is “Yishai Jusidman: Prussian Blue” through Nov. 26. Prussian Blue is named after the blue pigment that is used exclusively in the photorealistic paintings that make up the exhibit. It was one of the world’s first artificial blue pigments; it was also a byproduct of chemical reactions between Zyklon B and the brick walls of the gas chambers at the Nazi death camps. Judisman traveled to Dachau, Sobibor and Mauthausen, creating photographs which he rendered into large scale paintings.
The selections, curated by Christian Viveros-Fauné, are almost scenic; woodlands, a lake, a low-slung building in a clearing. The starkness of the compositions combined with the blue tones, and the knowledge of that pigment’s history, is evocative of the horrors of the Holocaust without being over-the-top gruesome. 
“We can’t forget what these are. What are we looking at? We’re looking at pictures of genocide. We’re looking at images of the destruction of European Jewry,” Margles said. “I’m thankful we have work like this, frankly. It doesn’t wound us. It doesn’t necessarily crush us to look at these. They’re chilling, but there’s something so hauntingly beautiful about them. But you have to keep looking and you have to keep thinking.”
Prussian Blue is on display as part of a city-wide exhibition “Social Forms: Art As Global Citizenship” put in by Converge 45, which aims to improve access to art discourse across communities. 
For more information, visit omjche.org. 


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