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Food for thought

Mark Podwal leads a charming tour of Jewish holiday dishes.

September 16, 2004|Holly Myers | Special to The Times

Whether the limp fowl and glistening shellfish of 17th century Dutch painting, the luscious pears, apples and oranges of Paul Cezanne, or the fluffy confections of Pop artists like Wayne Thiebaud and Claes Oldenburg, food has been what you might call a staple of Western art for centuries. Its appearance may be incidental (think of the festively cluttered tables in the barroom scenes of Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec) or weightily symbolic (as in early Dutch still-lifes, where a lobster, for example, signified the resurrection of Christ). Just as in the real world, it pervades every aspect of human experience, from the most mundane to the most sacred.

New York-based artist, illustrator and author Mark Podwal takes a playful approach to this tradition in a thoroughly charming body of work on view at the Skirball Cultural Center. Titled "A Sweet Year: A Taste of the Jewish Holidays," the exhibition includes 30 small acrylic and gouache paintings, each focusing on the traditional foods of a different holiday: pomegranates for Rosh Hashana, challah for breaking the Yom Kippur fast, matzo for Passover, and so on.

The premise sounds didactic and on one level it is: Podwal began the series for an exhibition at the Youth Wing Library of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem last year and compiled many of the works in a children's book with the same name as the exhibition. (The show includes 10 additional works made in the time since, as well as two earlier paintings drawn from the Skirball's permanent collection.)

On one level, that is, these are children's pictures, intended to illustrate the function and value of particular traditions. As with all good children's fare, however, the work far surpasses those narrow terms. Regardless of -- or, perhaps, complementing -- their pedagogical value, these are delicious pictures: lively, inventive and sumptuously rendered with full-bodied forms and sweet, creamy colors. It would take a hardhearted adult to resist their charms entirely.

Podwal's trick, it seems, is not so much to illustrate food as to animate it. A Shabbat table loaded with challah, fish, wine and candles sprouts wings in one picture and soars angelically through a clear blue sky. Hamantaschen -- fruit-filled pastries eaten on Purim -- move about on dainty little legs in another, while the humble horseradish root -- a central component of the Passover Seder -- appears with a pair of stubby arms, his lower roots curling squid-like beneath him.

Many of the works portray foods as elements of a mythical landscape. Matzo, eaten at Passover to commemorate the Jews' flight from Egypt, takes the form of a pyramid in one picture. In another, an enormous piece of cheesecake -- one of the sweets eaten on Shavuot, a Spring harvest holiday, to evoke the land of milk and honey promised to the Jews in the Torah -- looms like a mountain over a scattering of desert tents.

In a piece commemorating Sukkot, the autumn harvest holiday, a constellation of fruits floats benevolently above a trio of thatched huts also called Sukkot, temporary structures designed to always allow a glimpse of the stars (in memory of the Jews' journey through the Sinai Desert).

Other works present foods entwined with objects. In one especially pretty piece, an olive branch sprouts dreidels (Hanukkah toys resembling spinning tops). In another, representing the spring holiday of Tu Bi-Shevat, the New Year for Trees, fruit trees grow out of a Torah scroll.

Whatever the particular configuration, and even in the more static or straightforward works, the energetic quality of Podwal's painting is an animating force. His trees are lively and noble, his pastries flirtatiously appealing and his fruit bursting with life. That stout horseradish root is an especially memorable example, as is a certain chalky green artichoke, the tip of which appears to be sprouting a miniature green temple (a play, it would seem, on the term Jerusalem artichoke). And if there has ever been a more perfectly delectable rendering of an olive, I have not seen it.

Podwal's technique is loose yet precise, whimsical yet substantial, and endowed with the confidence of one well-established in his trade. (He has nearly two-dozen books to his name, including several collaborations with Elie Wiesel and Francine Prose, and has published drawings in the New York Times for 30 years.)

Podwal's paint, deftly manipulated, has a wonderfully milky quality and a texture like thin frosting, which makes every piece seem like a confection, thoroughly pleasant to consume. His reds have the tang of pomegranate juice, his greens the soft sting of sour apples, his lavenders a marshmallowy softness, and his oranges a crisp, cool sweetness.

Podwal closes his book "A Sweet Year" with a hopeful vision. In the author's note on the last page, he writes: "Tradition holds that in days to come, even greater miracles will happen. Trees will bear fruit every day. One grape will be as large as a keg of wine. And bread will grow directly from the earth."

The latter image is the one that graces the book's back cover: an autumnal-colored field dotted with stalks bearing thick, hearty slices of bread, each tilted like a sunflower to the sun.

It's a lovely prospect.


`A Sweet Year: A Taste of the Jewish Holidays'

Where: Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles

When: Noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 11 a.m. to

5 p.m. Sundays; closed Mondays

Ends: Oct. 31

Price: Free

Contact: (310) 440-4500

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