Walk into the Saint Vincent College art gallery in Latrobe and the first thing you’ll see is a wall covered in brightly colored women’s panties.
Not the most common item on display at this small, staunchly Catholic institution, but peek a little closer — each pair is adorned with Hebrew text: shomer negia (don’t touch). Or, as artist and designer Maya Escobar explained, many interpret her panties as, “If you’ve gotten this far, you’re too far.”
The underwear is part of Tzit Tzit: Fiber Art and Jewish Identity, Saint Vincent’s new exhibition as assembled by guest curator and associate art professor Ben Schachter. The pieces included interpret the exhibition’s title both literally and metaphorically — tzit tzit as art, certainly, but also as a symbol of how Jews are bound together by material through tradition and practice.
“There are certain ways we as Jews relate to materials,” said Schachter excitedly, still crafting the final touches of his collection, which opens to the public today and runs through Feb. 21. “Even in the kitchen: we separate milk from meat, metal can’t be cleaned the same way glass can. This show generalizes tzit tzit as the Jewish relationship to material.”
Incorporating the work of five Jewish artists from across the country, including Escobar, Melanie Dankowicz, Carol Es, Leslie Golumb, Louise Silk and Shirah Apple, Schachter said the exhibition pieces are tied together by a sense of balancing the familiar and idiosyncratic elements of Judaism. Apples’ “Untitled” looks like a giant mobile of cloth, created with dozens of braids tied together, all dangling from a suspended cloth. Standing underneath feels like the sky is raining tzit tzit.
“When I’m near it, I feel like the child sitting next to his parents waiting for services to be over, pulling on their tallit,” said Schachter. “It’s an abstraction of that feeling.”
The objects, religious and otherwise, associated with Judaism are the closest Jews come to a formal iconography, believes Schachter, as they elevate Jewish practice toward personal spirituality through ceremony.
“When you think of Jewish iconography, it doesn’t read the same as, say Christian iconography. We have a different relationship to symbols, a very specific relationship to materials,” said Schachter. “Jewish iconography is about how we live in this world, rather than what God or the afterlife or heaven might be. These symbols are about what we do now.”
The exhibition revolves around a table at the room’s center, covered in a long, cloth runner. Embroidered on the dark print are the words to “Chad Gadya” (One Little Goat), the Passover seder-ending sing-along. Draped over the table’s edges, the piece, created by Golumb and Silk, materializes a Jewish tradition. The sound of the seder literally wraps around the table, encapsulating the practice at the place where it happens.
The layered meanings of these objects abound, but nowhere deeper than in Escobar’s pieces. Her “Heckshered Tallis” is just that — a handmade tallis adorned with dozens of differently shaped heckshers (kosher symbols), making the prayer shawl that much more kosher.
“I was very interested in Orthodox ritual as it plays out in pop culture,” said Escobar, “the way people recognize the ‘OU’ symbol.”
But about those panties.
“I wanted to make something like a ‘What Would Jesus Do’ bracelet but for young, Jewish girls,” said Escobar of her popular creation (they sell online at her Web site). “But why do people automatically assume it has to be a sexual message for men? It should be a halachic thing for women. Ideally, these aid in being shomer negia because they’re a reminder. They’re about individual sexuality for women.”
“They’re provocative and also ‘keep your hands off’ at the moment of greatest vulnerability. It’s really post-modern and funny,” said Schachter. “I mean, it’s underwear.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at email@example.com.)