Leading feminist artist Helene Aylon, in her recent book talk at the Brandeis University Rose Art Museum, outlined her life-long struggle to resolve the two extremes of her life: her mother’s ultra-orthodox reflection of her Jewish Orthodox “narrow Borough park head” and her ground-breaking feminist art. She learned to hold the paradox of equal and opposite truths. She declared: “that’s a Kabbalistic concept.” However she could not tolerate a religion that condoned killing two men who were found to be lying together. Today, when she attends any New York congregation, be it gay friendly or straight, she avoids kissing the Torah as it’s carried in its usual Shabbat walk around the synagogue before and after the Sabbath reading.
Married at 18 to an orthodox rabbi, she became a widow at 30 and immersed herself in art as consolation. With two children to raise, and a burning talent that would express itself in ways radical to her upbringing, she forged ahead sometimes flooded with feelings of guilt.
Her Brandeis presentation was co-hosted by the Hadassah Brandeis Institute, Boston’s Jewish Women’s Archive, the Mandel Center for the Humanities, the Office of the Arts Health: Science and Policy Program, and the Environmental Studies Program. These many sponsors are a testament to how many lines Aylon has crossed in her lifetime of devotion to various causes through her art.
Her memoir, published by the Feminist Press at the City University of New York, Whatever is Contained Must be Released: My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist, illustrates the contributions she made to the evolution of feminist art. The first stage centers about the visceral body in her installation of “The Breakings;” the second stage enlisted cross country travel in her “Earth Ambulance” packing soil from atomic energy facilities in pillowcases to be laid out at the Dag Hammarskjold Plaza before the UN with army stretchers from past wars; and the third included highlighted all the chauvinist and violent passages in the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew bible. “The Breakings,” “The Rescued Earth,” and “The Liberation of G-d” (with a pink dash) were the names of these three signature pieces. She sees herself as rescuing the body, the earth, and even God through her work. Her mother, after years of trying to rescue her daughter from the secular world, finally said that if her daughter’s work was in the Jewish Museum in NY, then she must be kosher.
Moving quickly to California after a disturbing revelation about her young male African American lover in New York, she moved into a significant phase with “Paintings That Change,” works that changed over time. She writes: “I wanted the art to tell me something that I did not know.” The essence here was Kabbalistic. “Paradox is acceptable in the Kabbalah; the very word Kabbalah means acceptance. That was my stance about imagery – not to produce it myself, but to receive it.” This led to a series of panels called “The Breakings,” gallons of poured linseed oil paint lying prone for months until the outer layer began to dry and then Aylon, like a high priestess would life the panels erect until the wet sac of oil would break before an audience assembled for the performance. At the lifting, Aylon would announce to the other midwives, as she called the women: ‘Whatever is contained must be released. You are to initiate the breaking, and I will accept it.’” Again Aylon acknowledges that the “strong pull of the Kabbalah was surely in The Breakings. The too-full sac caused the skin to rupture, spilling and emptying out, and a new formation arose. There cannot be a tikkun (repair) without a shvira (break).”
Another Kabbalistic concept seems echoed in her self-portrait with the name of God in Hebrew over her forehead. In Prague, the rabbi there once created a Golem, a being using Hebrew letters. Perhaps Aylon, who merges activism and scholarship, is also re-creating herself in a new image, a feminist image that rescues Judaism from chauvinism. Originally Golems lacked the power to speak and the word on the Prague Golem’s forehead was “truth.” Aylon, as a visual, conceptual and installation artist and eco-feminist whose work has been exhibited around the world, (including the Whitney Museum and the Jewish Museum in New York, the Aldrich Museum in Connecticut, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco and the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh), is certainly creating artistic truth that speaks to the power of the male establishment.
Another aspect of imprinting the Hebrew name of God on her forehead emerges from the Hebrew meaning of the word itself. The Hebrew letters Yud, Hay, Vav, Hay have been transliterated into the word Jehovah in Christian settings. However the word is really a variant of the Hebrew verb “to be.” It is a unique variant because it contains elements from the past, present, and future forms of the root meaning; it can be understood as “I have been, am, and will be. . .” The three times, as they are called in other paths, are that moment when all paradoxes are truly resolved in another dimension and when one is truly present to experience things as they are. Aylon has surely met that criterion.
For a retrospective slideshow of Helene Aylon’s work, see this video of her talk at the Brandeis University Rose Art Museum, where she discussed the intersection of Jewish identity and art. http://www.brandeis.edu/hbi/multimedia/video.html#aylon