Ruth Weisberg: “Unfurled” at the Skirball Cultural Center

review by peter frank

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From the outset, Ruth Weisberg’s artistic project has taken on multiple intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic purposes, staking out positions that are not necessarily contradictory but which have rarely coincided in the oeuvre of a single artist. She has explored aspects of her own life history, aspects of her ethnicity and its history, social and historical considerations of her gender, even aspects of technique. Weisberg usually shows individual series in tightly conceived exhibits that minimize the confluence of these disparate issues. In “Unfurled,” however–a small, 40-year retrospective built around one very large work–the “Weisberg complex” presented itself dramatically and engrossingly.

The Scroll–the giant work on paper at the center of this show–brims with such complexities. Spanning 94 feet, the episodic diorama conjures everything from a 19th century history painting to a Chinese landscape painting to an ancient tome. Considering that the pretext of this visual text is the urtext of Weisberg’s religion (and that The Scroll is owned, and was hereby presented, by the region’s preeminent Jewish cultural center), the scrolled format is at once a theatrical gesture and an exploration of a now-eccentric, and notoriously difficult, format. The Scroll is not a visual version of the Torah, however-anything but. It is an intensely personal testament, with the artist and her family recurring protagonists in a sequence of pictures more episodic than a TV miniseries.

In its naturalistic rendition of people past and present, The Scroll manifests one of the basic ironies of Weisberg’s work, in that it documents the history, culture and theology of a people who traditionally shun the depictive arts. She also inherits the modernist conflict over imagery, siding with figurative painters of earlier generations against any critical proscriptions. In doing so, she is quite willing to invest her imagery with message, and even narrative. In this, Weisberg is something of a neo-Social Realist, and her message, couched in the retelling of the Jews’ long history of persecution and perseverance, is one of tolerance and breadth. She extends that message specifically toward the treatment of women as equals–another, pointed, defiance of Jewish orthodoxy.

Still, hers is not easy work. Weisberg recounts her tales directly and elegantly, but not simply; she allows seemingly disconnected images to pile into one another and individual images to seem transparent or half-finished. Finally, however, her urgency proves riveting, as does her exquisite touch and the expanse of her vision.