Tobi Kahn's art seeks to heal the broken world

"PATUACH SAGUR PATUACH," 2012, acrylic on wood
"PATUACH SAGUR PATUACH," 2012, acrylic on wood Tobi Kahn
TOBI KAHN: REVERIE through April 5 | Cornell Fine Arts Museum, Rollins College, 1000 Holt Ave., Winter Park | 407-646-2526 | | free

Tobi Kahn's Reverie presents paintings, works on paper and sculptures by the NYC-based artist, whose observant Judaism is integral to his art practice. In a contemporary art world that is defiantly secular, Kahn's work is easily mistaken for a purely aesthetic exploration. Though I do not share Kahn's spiritual yearnings, the experience of viewing his work left me deeply moved. One hopes his insistence on its religious roots doesn't deter nonbelievers from this joyous experience.

Most important to a proper understanding of Kahn's art is the fundamental significance of the Jewish ethical principle of tikkun olam (literal translation: "world repair"), which designates an obligation to repair or heal the broken world. It is in this spirit that the artist offers his semi-abstract landscape paintings as a peaceful alternative to the constant battles of daily life. The paintings feature indeterminate biomorphic shapes that invite and encourage meditation.

In a series of twelve paintings displayed as a grid, "URAH VIII (Sky and Water)," Kahn documents the variety of color relationships between sky and water divided by a constant horizon line. "Those of us who live in Central Florida may well think of islands and marshes, lakes and canals, reinforcing the subjective nature of reading Kahn's paintings," writes Ena Heller, CFAM director and curator of this exhibition.

Tikkun olam enjoins the Jewish people to work toward a better world. It is a guiding principle for many Jewish cultural organizations that seek to reconcile religious and ethnic differences through the arts. From Jewish Art Salon to Art Kibbutz, these organizations embrace diverse styles and engage Jewish artists in collective art-making as a means of building religious tolerance. (Appropriately, Kahn will be a featured speaker at the 2015 GladdeningLight Symposium in Winter Park, Jan. 29-Feb. 1. His dedication to tikkun olam will be a welcome contribution to the nondenominational event "where art and spirit meet.")

Although Kahn is guided by tikkun olam, he is a solo studio artist. In this exhibition, his paintings are based on photographs taken during a trip to Costa Rica. Kahn builds a high relief texture on his canvases by applying modeling paste and painting over it. He sands each paint layer back, then paints again. The artist extends his compositions around the edges of the stretcher to better highlight their monumentality.

These paintings convey the artist's deep belief that God is part of every aspect of our world, as well as his commitment to reach across denominational lines. He titles his work with combinations of letters (URAH, SHIAN, AYIMH) borrowed from different languages including Hebrew, English, Latin and Spanish, which signify a non-place belonging to no specific nation or religion.

It's interesting to compare Kahn's career to another important Jewish-identified American artist, Archie Rand. Whereas Rand maintains concurrent reputations as a gallery artist and as an authority on Jewish iconography, Kahn makes no separation between his religious beliefs and his art-making. Kahn's sculptural works function as Judaica: ritual objects and memorial lighting. Kahn is the child of Holocaust survivors, and he inherited an acute awareness of mortality that is the basis of his public artwork and that has also influenced his gallery practice. But Kahn's profound aesthetic impact does not depend on spiritual motives. It transcends the religious convictions that are his starting point.


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