The exhibition presents various works differentiated by theme, but all expressing the artist’s unique language, including “Prayer Rugs” with designs, “Remembrance” in texts, and a new painting that is being exhibited here for the first time, “A Picture of Apostasy and Winter Faith.” The title of this most recent painting testifies to the artist’s thought process. Apostasy and faith are diametric opposites and juxtaposing them stimulates a discussion and even polemics. Another feature repeated in Kestenbaum Ben-Dov’s works, which lends its name to the exhibition, is the revealed and concealed in the painting. At times, the paintings commence in a clear realistic style and then conclude as abstract paintings, whose colors and interrelationship becomes the theme.
Prayer Rugs II, III, V, VI, 2003-2004, oil on canvas
The paintings in this series were created following the artist’s encounter with an ancient Torah ark curtain (parochet) originating either in Turkey or Egypt. Similar to other ritual objects that were influenced by the artistic styles prevalent during their period, the decorative elements of the parochet preserve Moslem design and imagery. In this case, the parochet was influenced by Moslem prayer rugs: the Arabic text that ornamented the original was replaced with one in Hebrew that included biblical verses and the names of God. A dedication from the donor commemorating his deceased daughter is inscribed on the parochet.
In ”Prayer Rug,” Kestenbaum Ben-Dov replaced the text from Psalms 42 on the parochet with verses from the Aleinu and other prayers. The substitution of prayers connected to prostration hints at the Moslem origin of the original rug, thereby visually connecting the two works. The artist also replaced the ineffable name of God, which appeared in the center of the parochet, with the name of Allah, thereby demonstrating that there is one God who is different only in the eyes of each religion’s devotees. The design on “Prayer Rug” portrays someone kneeling, leaving an impression of a person praying. One can also discern a small grave, which suggests the dedicatory inscription of the original parochet as well as the victims of the Israeli-Arab conflict.
Remembrance 2005-2007, oil on canvas
This series was also created following the artist’s surprise encounter with an unfamiliar object: a ceramic tile with a painting of the Dome of the Rock that adorns many Moslem homes. The artist juxtaposes it with the parallel Jewish object – part of a wall left unpainted in memory of the destruction of the Temple according to ancient Jewish custom. By taking these two objects out of their natural habitat and placing them, side by side, within the medium of painting, the artist creates a Jewish-Moslem dialogue based upon the understanding that loss and incompleteness are integral parts of life.
The Remembrance paintings follow an individual flow of consciousness, attain a familial angle, and suggest the theme of abstract art with its geometric figures and interrelated colors.
In this complex work, there is a meeting of Jewish and Greek texts (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah and Pliny, Natural History, from the first century CE). The work contrasts the Jewish mourning custom of covering all mirrors and pictures with that of a covered picture, which suggests illusion. The work focuses upon death and attempts to imitate reality to capture and preserve moments of life. This can be seen in the picture of a canvas covered with an actual black cloth, and next to it a painting of a black curtain; in a photograph of the artist’s late mother covered with cloth, and next to it a painting of the same covered image, closer, in a blank white canvas; and next to it the canvas is transformed into a shroud covering a face. All these continue the conflict or the cultural dialogue between the two texts.
A raw canvas with a screen-printed text from the Talmudic tractate Yoma is gradually covered, primed white in preparation for painting, as the text disappears. In the left-hand canvas a faint image of a woman’s body appears. On her belly traces of the text reappear, in flesh and canvas tones. The text describes the staves or poles that bore the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple, on which stood the sculptures of the Cherubim: “[The staves] probed and protruded outside the curtain like a woman’s breasts…When Israel made pilgrimage to the Temple they would roll up the curtain and show them the Cherubim that were intertwined with one another, and they would say to them: ‘Look at the love of God for you, like the love of man and woman.’” The painted image of the woman’s body seems to open up the possibility of reconciliation and union between the text and the painting.
A Picture of Apostasy and Winter Faith, 2016, oil on canvas
In this picture the artist continues to interweave figures from different sources. This creates chaos, hinting at the role of chance in the world. The figures include Fortuna, the Roman goddess of Luck, who also appears in Christian texts. The hand of God appears above the figures, rolling dice. The artist places her iconic picture, created in 1997, in the center of the picture: it portrays her head with her hand covering her eyes as when reading the Shema prayer. Does the artist wish to convey faith in God despite the surrounding chaos or does she refuse to see it?
Meeting? (After the Miraj Nameh), 2007, oil on canvas, Ruth Kestenbaum Ben-Dov
In this large closing painting of the series on the second floor, personal, historic and religious imagery intertwine, with the artist’s childhood public and private heroes looking on at the meeting of Mohammed and Moses in heavenly Jerusalem.