By Jesse Bernstein | Contributing Writer
USC Fisher Museum of Art
In his collection “Testimony: The United States (1885–1915), Recitative,” Charles Reznikoff took real courtroom testimonies describing all manner of crime — from petty theft to infanticide — and refashioned them into poems. Line breaks were inserted, but the original words were hardly touched. “Testimony” is in the tradition of found poetry that tweaks and reorders existing text so the original is seen from a different angle.
The result is brutal, haunting and frequently beautiful poetry that paints a bleak picture. One example:
“He picked up a stick of wood and said
‘By Jesus Christ, I will knock your
and told her to leave the house.
She answered she would go when she was good and ready.
He said, ‘You will go before you
and shoved her towards the door.
She caught hold of the door casing,
and their little girl began to cry.”
Reznikoff, a Brooklyn-born lawyer and the son of Jews who fled Russian pogroms in the early part of the 20th century, does not moralize, nor does he even comment on the events that the poems describe. But with the slight reorientation of our experience of the text, he takes a grim, violent story and turns it into something different. The spirit of the event he describes, if not the literal truth, becomes more evident.
It is that sort of move — an artist using his medium to add to something that could not be conveyed by a simple recounting of reality — that is mostly missing from David Kassan’s “Facing Survival,” a collection of paintings from his recent exhibit at the USC Fisher Museum of Art (presented by the USC Shoah Foundation and The Kenneth T. and Eileen L. Norris Foundation).
“Facing Survival” is made up of portraits of 15 Holocaust survivors and one multi-paneled painting of 11 survivors together. Selma Holo, executive director of USC Museums, writes in an introductory essay that Kassan painted his subjects only after painstakingly recording each of their stories of survival. The USC exhibition included some of the survivors’ spoken and transcribed testimony.
Testimony comes up repeatedly in the essays. In Kassan’s paintings, survivors are “as you have never seen them before,” artist John Nava says. Kassan “understands that testimony in its essence is being,” writes Stephen Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation. Testimony, Kassan himself writes, “is an effective weapon in countering hate group propaganda and racism.”
But it seems to come at the cost of the medium’s many advantages. What Kassan has done in the majority of his portraits could just as easily have been done with a camera. There is no reframing of the survivors in a new way; they look wise and world-weary, qualities that many of us would already associate with them. It’s not clear what these straightforward portraits add to our conception of testimony.
Holo describes her initial apprehension about going to see Kassan’s paintings due to a general aversion to realist painters, who, “although highly skilled,” often produce “mere reportage.” Though she finds herself disabused of that initial assessment at the exhibit itself, the book version does not transcend that issue.
Where Kassan succeeds is in the portraits where he uses the medium to his advantage. An excellent portrait of Andrew Holten shows a deep crease across the middle of the subject’s face, giving it the quality of a bent photograph, found tucked away in a drawer. His shirt blends with background colors; Holten has memory, and is memory, a quality shared by everyone but heightened in the survivor.
One painting of a survivor in a clean, concentration camp uniform is genuinely astonishing. The uniform looks brand new, almost clown-like, or just picked up from the costume store. It’s a portrait of dignity that had to be regained in order to live life as a human and not as a prisoner.
It is in those portraits, and even in the studies of subjects’ floating hands printed in the back of the book, that Kassan finds a genuinely artistic testimony, one that reorders survivors ever so slightly to reveal a deeper truth about them, without sacrificing their literal experiences. pjc
Jesse Bernstein is staff writer and books editor of the Jewish Exponent.