Izhar Patkin

Izhar Patkin's command of line and color makes his painting almost always graceful and seductive, all the more so because he applies it to his own restlessly inventive alternatives to the traditional canvas ground. Among the best-known examples are his mid-'80s works on sheets of rubber, which, hung like curtains, have a three-dimensional presence that leads naturally to his later ventures into sculpture. Even the pictures in his recent show, “Judenporzellan”—the flattest Patkin pieces I remember—involve levels and layers, with images not only stenciled on stiff metallic-surfaced paper but delineated in shaped cutouts woven into or through a different-colored sheet of ground paper underneath.

Patkin was one of the artists who in the '80s reintroduced historical and fictional subject matter to painting after it had been discouraged by the variously motivated puritanisms of the '60s and '70s, and “Judenporzellan” continues in this vein. The works are based on the story of the Mendelssohn family, notably Moses Mendelssohn, an Enlightenment thinker who promoted Jewish assimilation. His daughter, Brendel Mendelssohn, ran a salon and wrote a novel about a woman who cross-dressed (Patkin has an enduring interest in erotic politics—Genet was a source in earlier work), and his grandchildren were Felix Mendelssohn and Fanny, also a composer. Yet the distinguished Moses Mendelssohn, we learn in the exhibition, involuntarily came into the possession of twenty porcelain monkeys of inferior quality. For Frederick II of Prussia had ruled in 1769 that a Jew applying for any kind of permit or privilege, for example to marry or buy a house, would have to purchase a certain value of crockery before the request was granted. (Frederick, it should be explained, owned a Berlin porcelain factory.)

Patkin addresses the story through a vocabulary of recurring forms, portraits of the Mendelssohns combining with images of various porcelains (the monkeys appearing often, along with jugs and teawares) and ornate furnishings. An eighteenth-century setting is an invitation to Patkin to indulge his rococo tastes—he loves curling lines and flowery space-filling devices—but he is somewhat subdued in the “Judenporzellan” group, working not only in relative flatness but in a relatively limited palette. Indeed, the limits to Moses Mendelssohn's dream of assimilation, embodied by the porcelain monkeys (and made horribly clear in our own century), are a somber topic.

Even so, the metamorphic doubleness of Patkin's images here—the teapots thatsprout big noses, the twisting vines that resemble pais while evoking wandering Jews, the paper chains that point symbolically to the subtle restraints on Jews and indexically to the process of the works' making—demonstrates an imaginative fertility that the artist cannot completely repress. He has worked with greater bravura—in the mighty glass figure of 1994 that fuses Shiva, Josephine Baker, and Carmen Miranda, for example—and his sobriety in the present series gives it a slightly tentative quality by comparison; but the attempt to focus his wide formal range can only deepen his art in the long run.

David Frankel