Wings of desire

By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  January 30, 2008

“Remembering Angels,” Bak’s 18th show at the Pucker (his first was in 1969), is an unusually concise collection from this prolific artist: 19 paintings, all 40 by 30 inches, plus a handful of drawings on the same subjects. Dürer’s angel appears in each one: hoodwinked and sitting by the sea, or with a head bandage under her (laurel? watercress?) wreath, or a helmet, or with the head completely covered and holding a book instead of a compass, or turned to stone or plywood. The image is doubled or reversed or split, Bak exploring our postmodern world of deconstruction and dismembering (the opposite of remembering?) and the digitalization of identity. He rings changes on Dürer’s elements: the rainbow, symbol of God’s promise to Noah never to send another Flood, is broken; the ladder by which one might climb to Heaven (or escape from a death camp) leads nowhere. His settings look like construction (or demolition) sites, with pulleys hauling up rainbows and ladders and polyhedra and even angel wings. In On the Other Hand, the outline of a plywood angel “watches” (it has no eyes) as the feather in one pan of the giant scales (held from above by . . . God?) proves heavier than the cannonball in the other. In Measure of Time, Dürer’s hourglass occupies the entire left half of the composition: in its upper chamber, which is topped by the suggestion of a Nazi helmet, a shtetl-like clump of houses is visible atop the sand, and the lower chamber is broken off. There are elements particular to the Holocaust: the number 6 (the six million who died, and the Sixth Commandment, which forbids murder), trains making for the death camps, crematorium chimneys, the voyage of the SS St. Louis (which in May of 1939 sailed from Hamburg with nearly 1000 Jewish refugees but was denied entry by Cuba), prayer-shawl stripes that double as prison-uniform stripes, the forest outside Vilna where Bak’s father and grandparents were shot.

All this makes for grim viewing, but the subject matter is relieved, if not redeemed, by Bak’s color palette, which, echoing Bosch in The Garden of Earthly Delights and Brueghel in The Fall of the Rebel Angels, bathes you in warm ochers and russets and leaf-greens and sea-blues. And at the Pucker, you’re funneled toward the show’s focal point, Testimonials. Here the angel — in the usual attitude, with left hand on cheek — is a woman in a brown felt hat and fur-collared green coat who looks a little like photographs of the artist’s mother. She holds a book, but her eyes are closing. Her purse is at her feet, and a small suitcase, and there are portfolios and canvases and picture frames standing in for the artist. Her striped tin wings are nailed to the tree behind her; in the distance, a train steams toward smoking chimneys and a hot-air balloon rises. In Hebrew an “angel” is a messenger, a person who carries out God’s will. In Samuel Bak’s world, we’re all angels, just waiting for the message.

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