While I was looking at the photographs of Anna Shteynshleyger at the opening of this Russian-born, Chicago-based artist’s new solo exhibition at at The Renaissance Society, a middle-aged woman wearing a fluffy, faux-fur coat sidled up next to me. “Do you know what that is?” she asked me, pointing to the image I was peering at intently. It was a blue-tinged photograph of some sort of twisted, fleshy material that looked like raw bread dough.
“I’m not exactly sure,” I replied. “I can’t tell if it’s soaking in a bowl of something or what.”
“It looks organic,” the woman mused, “like an organ from a body.”
“Well, it’s challah….It’s not baked yet. But I can’t make out what this part is,” I said, gesturing to the circular, fan-like opening out of which the doughy form appeared to be rising.
“Oh, it’s challah!?” she exclaimed. “I know what challah is — I make challah. But that looks more like a body part. How do you pronounce the artist’s name?” I told her I had no idea, and she nodded. “She should have changed it to Smith!”
We both laughed at that one. Jewish immigrants have a long history of changing their names in order to better assimilate with WASP culture. They made them shorter, more easily pronounceable, less foreign-sounding. In other words, less Jewish. As it turned out, the photograph that so bemused us both wasn’t actually of challah at all. It was stuffing material, the kind used to plump up toys, that had been crammed into a pair of nylons and “braided” in the manner of challah, the iconic Jewish bread that, among other things, is integral to the Shabbat blessings performed each Friday night in observant Jewish homes.
Shteynshleyger makes photographs about her life, and Shteynshleyger, a woman in her early thirties with two young children, is an observant Jew. And yet, although a few of the images display signifiers of Jewish family life and Jewish culture (candlesticks, kippot, tzitzit) they are adamantly not about “being Jewish,” nor are they meant to portray contemporary Orthodox life in documentary fashion. Instead, exhibition curator Hamza Walker and Shteynshleyger argue, these images are about biography: its limits and possibilities, its intimate relationship to mundane fact and its kinship with fiction. But since Shteynshleyger’s Jewishness is part of her biography, the show inevitably circles back to the artist’s Jewish identity–”an extraordinarily tricky subject to deal with,” as Walker characterized it during his public talk with Shteynshleyger on Sunday.
And how. What might be read by many as a discomfort with the idea of Jewishness and to some degree with Judaism itself that runs throughout this show could be read by others simply as a desire to represent things as matter-of-factly as possible. People are not “prettied up.” Adolescent girls look like adolescent girls (even more so, because the young Orthodox women in these images wear no makeup). Food often looks unsavory. The dirty tile and curtain in a hotel bathroom is allowed to look ugly, to convey the disgust that the artist herself felt upon regarding it for the first time.
Early on in her conversation with Walker, Shteynshleyger admitted that the Jewish part of her identity was perfectly happy with the artist part, but the artist side of her often felt “very embarrassed” about the Jewish part.
“Nobody wants to be a Jew,” Shteynshleyger asserted, quite provocatively, right after making this admission. She added that Jews deal with the ambivalence of Jewishness by becoming either really secular or really religious. In Shteynshleyger’s own photographs, this ambivalence is registered via images culled directly from her own life and yet which reveal very little about that life. “I want to make a work about biography, but I don’t really want to talk about myself…it’s like that,” Shteynshleyger explained during the talk.
There are several portraits of heterosexual married couples in this show, all of them Jewish. The men wear kippot and tzitzit. The women wear calf-length skirts and shirts with long sleeves. In all of the photographs, the couples sit with their bodies touching. Unsmiling, they stare directly into the camera, completely aware of their subjectivity at that moment. Shteynshleyger has included herself in one of these photographs, pregnant and sitting next to a man named Mordechai. She is ostensibly coupled in a manner similar to the rest, but the truth of the matter lies outside of the image, for we learn via a cryptic line in the exhibition’s essay (and explicitly during the public conversation, when the artist referred to her “ex-husband”) that Shteynshleyger is not (or at least, is no longer) one of those happily married couples.
Throughout the show there is a sense of perpetual covering and uncovering, of surface blemishes laid bare in order to obscure other, more complicated and less communicable aspects of personal and cultural identity, Jewish or otherwise. During their conversation, Shteynshleyger expressed gratitude to Walker for his refusal to put her work into a “curatorial box” by framing it, as she put it, as “a Jewish show” or making it into a better-looking exhibition by selecting only those images that project the disembodied romanticism and gauzy allure seen in works like Ester or Masha. This is indeed a “tricky” exhibition: distinctly un-beautiful, anti-nostalgic, ambivalent towards the notion of an overarching cultural or religious identity and yet unapologetically embedded within the web of family and religious community. It’s a show made all the trickier by the modesty of Shteynshleyger herself: a woman, a mother, an artist and a Jew who makes images that spring from all those experiences and yet speak directly to none of them.