Marc Alan Jacobs

Beret International Gallery

For his recent installation “Hymietown,” Marc Alan Jacobs created a crowd of a hundred inflated plastic punching bags, each made to resemble a religious Jew, with yarmulke, shawl, and black suit, standing in prayer. Vaguely shaped like bowling pins, these roly-poly four-foot tall figures were identically screenprinted with the same rather blank and impassive face and reddish-brown hair. Several pounds of sand sealed within the base of each clone gave it stability and a degree of physical imperturbability; if you were to push or strike these figures—and it was impossible to walk through the cluttered space of the gallery without some sort of contact—they would quickly revert to their upright position.

Jacobs’s work provided an amusing self-parody, an intense immersion in the sort of teasing and reflexive ethnic stereotyping that can be simultaneously charming and pathetic. The installation led one to wonder whether the artist caricatures his own ethnicity for the comic release it might offer, for the permission it provides him to hold his Jewishness at a bit of a distance. In the past, Jacobs’s work—which has included projects such as Jews of the 70s, 1994, and A Little Book of Jews, 1995—has also explored issues of identity in a decompressed manner, offering self-deprecating wit in place of moribund seriousness. It’s a kind of rueful sharing of the in-joke, calling oneself a name before anyone else does.

And yet Jacobs’s bland multitude, in their dutiful pursuit of their faith and erect correctness, can act too as a commentary on the dictates of cultural assimilation in American society. Whether Jacobs is here indicating a bar mitzvah boy or a young man at Sabbath prayers, the figure assumes a profile—standing with open prayer book—that many American Jews have relegated to their past, not always without pangs of guilt. The stream of visitors caused several of the figures to face the wall (only one had originally been placed in that direction by the artist), creating an impromptu and powerful allusion to Jews praying at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. The manner in which these figures absorbed the physical impact of their viewers and always returned stubbornly to their prayer position no matter how forceful the contact served as a curious metaphor for Jewish history. At the same time, because of their petite scale, walking among them took on aspects of an act of protection. Such oddly dignified elements salvage Jacobs’s work from claims of racism or self-loathing. He both mocks and reifies, poking fun at his ethnicity while everywhere indicating the strong bonds that mark his connection to it. The result is an exercise in generosity, a critical expression of the final impossibility of transcending one’s origins.

James Yood