I sat down with artists Richard McBee and Joel Silverstein to talk about their current exhibition, Genesis: The Beginning of Creativity, presented by the Jewish Art Salon with support from CANVAS. As Co-Directors of Exhibitions for the Salon, the two ideated, curated—in collaboration with Goldie Gross—and participated in the show, which features artworks by Jewish, Christian, Muslim and secular artists displayed back-to-back in three venues in New York City this summer. The works on view in Genesis (which also serve as discussion materials for the accompanying panel talks) illuminate liberal values within religious creation narratives while placing religious texts in dialogue with other philosophies and practices in contemporary art.
How did the idea for Genesis arise? Was it always intended to be an interfaith exhibition?
Silverstein: First of all, during the Covid pandemic the world seemed to be pulling itself apart. We thought that this would be a great opportunity to reach out to communities wider than our own Salon art group. We searched for a theme that could be compelling and could apply to both people of faith and in the secular world. The book of Genesis was a prominent choice from the beginning because the Abrahamic religions share the first book of the Bible and an interpretive tradition as well. Secular artists were also interested; some people said, “I don’t believe in God or that these events actually occurred, but they still reflect powerful narratives.” It’s an overarching metaphor, an origin tale describing the creation of the universe and the pageantry and morality that ensue. But the artists of the exhibition clearly employed the meanings in Genesis as an allegory for both human and artistic creation, fusing aesthetic and moral practice. The artists are reaching back to religious and cultural traditions that one doesn’t often see represented in secular museums and galleries.
McBee: This is not a religious show; this is about ideas. And creativity. I have seen it from three people’s perspectives: one of whom happened to be Christian, one of whom happened to be Muslim and one of whom was Jewish. To give you an example, would you say Shakespeare’s plays are political? Shakespeare is about the human condition. All his plays are deeply rooted within English political contexts, but they’re about the human condition. That’s what this is about. It would be wrong to characterize this as a religious show. The Genesis Creation narratives are about our human culture. That’s what drew us all together. I happen to be observant, but that’s certainly not what drives my art or much of the work that’s in the show.
Silverstein: But it can. What turned out to be brilliant was that we had religious people and totally secular people in the same exhibition. Everyone was excited about sharing the artwork and the ideas in a forum of broad conversation.
Could you decipher an artist’s level of observance from their artwork?
Silverstein: Yes and no. A visitor stated, “I want to see a Muslim woman artist painting female figures in her work.” And the answer was, we don’t have any in the exhibition. The artists involved didn’t send any. In applying Islamic religious law to art, the figure either has to be very abstract or non-existent. There is a history of Persian and Mughal painting different from this, but in general, our Muslim artists did not engage in the depiction of human form. One of our panelists, Daisy Khan, spoke about Muslim artists’ engagement with calligraphy and their way of depicting the letters of the Koran as stand-ins for the human figure to make meaning in their work. I thought that was just fantastic.
McBee: Right. She was showing how for many Muslim artists, the human form is just not something they employ. And to give you a quick background, Khan is a Kashmiri-American Islamic campaigner, reformer and executive director of the Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality. Her talk on the panel and her description of the Islamic understanding of Creation was fascinating. It was a total learning experience for me.
How much did you know about other religious Creation narratives before organizing this exhibition?
Silverstein: Our role in organizing exhibitions in the Salon ensures that we must study Jewish textual and cultural traditions on an ongoing basis, as well as Art history. Richard is observant and Orthodox; I am not. Both of us try to keep up. When you are employing religious ideas in an art context, people have many questions. And this exhibition called for a much wider and more inclusive level of knowledge. We looked through Christian and Muslim texts, as well as consulting with people to reinforce our limited knowledge base. We had Islamic scholars come in on this, the professionals who wrote the catalog essays. We had Christian advisors, like Paul-Gordon Chandler, the Episcopal Bishop of Wyoming and Director of CARAVAN, an arts organization with ties to both Christian and Islamic worlds. There were nine essayists in total. By the way, the Jewish Art Salon was started in 2008 by Yona Verwer, who is still the Director.
Given that the Jewish Art Salon is a forum for discussion and thought on Jewish art, can you talk about the value of internal dialogue within communities, versus those of interfaith perspectives?
McBee: This is a groundbreaking exhibition for the Jewish Art Salon and the art world, as well. The art world doesn’t perceive the themes of Genesis: The Beginning of Creativity, as something to approach or engage. It’s much too specific for them. We think it’s important and vital. It has brought people together and allowed artists to be amazingly creative. So where do you go from here to engage people in the future? You go to other narratives that are as interesting and concern our current world. How many peoples have experienced an Exodus? We have this narrative, but it’s not just ours. There are so many people trying to get out of their countries, to get to a place, a safe haven. This is as universal a narrative as Genesis.
Richard, I know that you revisit specific biblical narratives in your artwork. Had you made work about Genesis before and if so, has your work changed this time around?
McBee: I began three paintings, specifically as a response to the Genesis exhibition. Previously, I had created some works on Cain and Abel. I then painted a triptych in 2021. The first painting shows the creation of Eve as she emerges from Adam’s side. The second, Eve with the Snake. The third, Adam and Eve leaving the Garden. By the events of the third painting, both figures are fully clothed; Eve is pregnant with humanity. Adam is hesitant. He is more than that; he’s clueless. It is Eve who really knows, “We’ve got to go out and start humanity. That’s our job.”
Joel, can you tell me about the artwork you put in Genesis?
Silverstein: I’ve actually done a lot of works about Exodus. I recently authored and painted a book called the Brighton Beach Bible, which the Jewish Art Salon will be printing and releasing in November. It’s 62 works on the Exodus story, but totally autobiographical, using Brighton Beach and Coney Island (in Brooklyn) as the background for Egypt, the wilderness and the Promised Land.
My painting in the exhibition is called New Genesis, 2022. Adam and Eve are sitting under the Tree of Knowledge drinking bottles of Coca-Cola, instead of eating an apple. That is my comment on modern commercialism as “The Fall” and “Original Sin.” It turns out that in the Hebrew texts there is no apple. This reference actually comes from Milton’s Paradise Lost. It has nothing to do with the Hebrew Bible and it became both a visual standard and a cliche. In the Hebrew Bible, it could be a pomegranate, a citron, a fig, wheat or grapes. Europe had apples.
The painting is structured as two concentric, rectangular canvases, essentially a canvas within a canvas, depicting Paradise and the material world. The Talmudic and Medieval rabbis actually absorbed Platonic and Aristotelian ideas, either directly or indirectly. Many philosophical and creative practices span Jewish, Christian, Muslim and ancient, or what would be called “pagan” worlds because of Neoplatonism.
The exhibition is about that mix: religion, creativity, philosophy, moral thought and cultural practice taken in a multiplicity of ways. I think the modern world runs the risk of missing out on these vital topics because if you dispense with the sacred and the sublime, then everything is reduced to the material. This is not about advocating for a particular religion, or even religion per se. It’s about advocating a way of thinking that has value in the 21st century for everyone, but especially for artists.
Genesis: The Beginning of Creativity is on view at The Jewish Theological Seminary through July 30.