Mamzer Loshen

The following is an art review I wrote for the print edition of Art New England. The show was called Mamzer Loshen/Bastard Tongue, named for the traditionalist Yiddish pejorative term for the English language. The curator and artist Johanna Bresnick (view her website here) operates out of New Haven, Connecticut. The venue in which the show appeared is an upscale backyard garage operation called Grand Projects.

*****

Mamzer Loshen/Bastard Tongue is a freewheeling exploration of the tumultuous Jewish identities of Johanna Bresnick and Mike Cloud.

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Its inspiration was found in a recent standoff between an illegal Israeli settlement and the Israeli Army. As both parties had eschewed using guns against kinsmen, the settlers resorted to some rather comical battle tactics, as commemorated in The Upsetters (Set it off). There, surrounded by an oil slick and draped in razorwire, a drywall barricade is found stocked with an arsenal of harmless but potentially annoying projectiles: paint-filled light bulbs, plastic bottles full of colored water, spray foam, and small rocks.

The installation turns satirical in Tigers of Long Island (Plagues). When viewed from above, the top edges of this elegant paper structure spell out the Ten Plagues in script. Frogs, hail, death of the firstborn, and the other plagues are all duly cited, along with some new ones: gas, migraine, gingivitis, ulcer, and so on.

Elevating satire to outright rebuke, From Mouth to Mouth brazenly flouts a Tanakh, the sacred book of Judaism, rent to pieces and stuffed into gel caps for easy consumption.

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The structurally inventive Divine Image (Cosmic Tree Remix) seamlessly integrates the Burning Bush with the Kabbalah Tree of Life as a crimson wax candle with many wicks. The fallen leaves beneath the bush resemble tongues – the Bastard Tongues of semi-estranged Jews.

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The most deeply layered – and funniest – component of Mamzer Loshen is a bedsheet emblazoned with a small image of Russian figure skating champion Oksana Baiul, punctured to create a hole with the width of a phallus. This constellation of symbols cleverly re-contextualizes various sexual fetishes and myths.

Mamzer Loshen is jarring. It alternately antagonizes and cracks wise, restates questions and dismisses answers – and ultimately transmits the essential tumult of a modern Jewish-American heart.

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