The works of Joyce Ellen Weinstein are concerned with the understanding of human relationships, beginning with ourselves and extending outward to include family, community, ethnicity, and nationality. Although at first glance the works of Joyce Ellen Weinstein appear disparate, after closer examination one can find her inspiration in the personal and emotional, as well as the interaction developed through self, family, and community - all of which are parts making up the whole of her unified body of work. Her works do not sentimentalize, but speak of the human measure and human condition. The works of Joyce Ellen Weinstein ask the universal question: "who am I and where am I going?"
Joyce Ellen Weinstein as Socio-Political Expressionist
by Dr. Ori Z Soltes, Georgetown University, Washington, DC
Across the decades, Joyce Ellen Weinstein has worked across an array of media, from painting and drawing and woodcuts to pastels and photography and set design to artist-made books and mixed media works of both two and three dimensions. She has moved among a diversity of subjects, from the most personal to the most universal. But both her subjects and her media are consistently and clearly interlocking links in the chain of her art.
And as every chain is a visual and conceptual combination of two elements, the—usually metallic—material that forms the links and the empty space within and between each link, so her work combines two essential elements. Across the panoply of her styles, subjects and media one finds expressionism in the fullest sense of that word as art historians typically use it: she repeatedly offers an intensity of emotion—raw, often disturbing, sometimes paradoxically joyous and despairing emotion—that links her work to a historical progression of artists carrying back through Jackson Pollack to Chaim Soutine to Vincent Van Gogh to Artemesia Gentileschi to Parmagianino. But the emotion that she articulates is harnessed to a range of social and political messages that link her work to a historical progression carrying back from Judy Chicago to Jack Levine and Ben Shahn to Jean-Francois Millet and Honore Daumier to Jacques-Louis David.
So Joyce Ellen Weinstein might be called a socio-political expressionist. We see this in the self-portraits the colors and lines of which both capture and yet stunningly distort her own features, offering thereby not only compelling visual explorations of self but of the process of coming to see herself, at a given moment, in the shadow of painful personal moments when the sense of how others have seen her has engendered distortion and pain. We see her social expressionism in the self-portrayals as an odalisque, that, dynamic and distorted as her other self-portraits can be, add to the issues of self-reflection the matter of how the world of—primarily male—artists has, down through the centuries, depicted and objectified women as objects. That is: women are objects to be admired, but in a limited, physically beauteous, (and who determines and by what means what constitutes physical beauty?), worthy-of-being-ogled manner.
We feel the sizzling emotion underneath the surface of paintings and drawings that reflect on social settings—parties, in particular weddings: events defined by smiles assisted by cocktails and contexts that demand a baring of teeth without baring the edges of teeth. We are overwhelmed by it in the sweeping series of drawings—the “Dead Boys” series—that succinctly encapsulate the despair of a segment (that of teen-aged African-American city boys) of the American community at large left outside the community of our concern, abandoned as the American dream hurries elsewhere across our extensive, expansive red, white and blue sea.
Weinstein’s intense engagement of culture and history echo from her portraits of the soaring silences of synagogues in Prague that survived Hitler’s intended destruction of the Jewish people—survived because of his intention that they serve as a museum reminder of his success at effecting the demise of Jews and Judaism—their walls and windows subtly distorted in color and shape as if they are bursting to speak of what they have witnessed. We see that engagement in the elegiac stillnesses of the Lithuanian timber synagogues whose carcasses, intact or fragmentary, she has sought out, tracked down, and recorded with diverse visual means. We feel it in the variously overgrown and empty or overcrowded and lively cemeteries of out-of-the-way Jewish and Christian communities across central and eastern Europe that she has depicted in one medium or another. We find it in works—such as “Reflections on War”—in which diverse images and a cacophony of media elements are overrun with a seemingly endless text (as endless as the history of human warfare).
There are appropriate paradoxes here, in the reverberations of simultaneous joy and pain induced by the artist’s reflections on the human experience that is so laced with paradox. There is anger and frustration at what we are and do to each other and there is delight at what we have accomplished for each other. Across the panoply of Joyce Ellen Weinstein’s work, skilled draftsmanship, bold use of color (when she chooses color, rather than the muted brilliance of black and white), intensity of line and range of nuanced texture, offer the viewer a feast, filled with delicacies—a chain of interlinked delicacies—that combine stridency of emotion and raw visual power with substance and depth of thought to shape a multi-valent revelation.
Reflections on the Work of Joyce Ellen Weinstein
by Laura Kruger, Curator, Hebrew Union College Museum
Responding with passionate empathy to social injustice, Joyce Ellen Weinstein charges her art works with an imperative for change. Her issues are those of religious freedom, racial equality, feminist strength, and she takes the personal risk of speaking out for shattered lives and dislocated individuals. Frequently working in a series format, Weinstein’s work always includes a raw call for justice.
The strong influence of German Expressionism marks her work. Powerful physicality makes itself felt with forceful, black outlines carving out the point of focus for the viewer. The vigorous lines tend to distort forms and shapes yet provide them with impact and intensity. One immediately thinks of Max Beckmann, James Ensor, Georges Rouault, and Oskar Kokoschka. Intense emotions are revealed through Weinstein’s re-shaping of form and color. She uses this visual disregard of regular harmony to underscore the imbalance of society. Weinstein’s accomplished command of technique enables her to project moral indignation, a pervasive sense of social hostility and the depths of psychological reasoning.
Adept in many media, her linocuts or linoleum cut prints immediately stand out as singular. Linocuts are similar to woodcuts; a layer of soft linoleum is affixed to wood, carved in relief, inked and applied to paper. The technique lends itself to powerful, broad outlines and was used by modern artists such as Picasso and Matisse. In her series of 26 biblical interpretations dating from 1997 through 2006, Weinstein explores the psychological profiles of biblical Jewish leaders. Beginning with the Expulsion of Adam and Eve, Weinstein literally turns us on our heads. With palpable, violent force, Eve tumbles out of Eden. She does not go with humility or despair, but with energized surprise. Adam, on the other hand, is coiled and trapped by vines which form unbreakable bonds. Miriam leads the people Israel across the Red Sea in jubilation, Moses crouches in indecision and anguish. The midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, form a solidarity, a yin/yang of linked sisterhood. Abraham and Isaac are interdependently bound up in the strands of a tallit, Jonah is seen washed up, worn out and exhausted. These are not the perceptions that we have been prepared to accept but rather powerful human interpretations of a potential reality. Her commitment to feminist values is delineated in sympathetic interpretations of the Matriarchs as well as some of the forgotten, nameless women such as Japheth’s Daughter, Lot’s Wife and Pharaoh’s Daughter.
Her breakthrough body of 24 charcoal and oil paint on paper, The Dead Boys, 1988-1990, is presented as a surround installation. This work is a memorial to the deaths of twelve African-American high school students randomly murdered during her six year period as a teacher. They form a disintegrated community, torn asunder by confusion, circumstances, crime, dispair, hopelessness. But for Weinstein’s testimony, who would remember them, who would mourn? Thin lines and drips of red paint leave no question of the brutal saga. The graffiti drawing style and headline format of their names and birth/death dates enforces the reality. Bearing witness to this extended dissolution of a community, Weinstein realized her need to create and protect the fragile web of her own Jewish world. Never making comparisons, the dark hole of the Holocaust is, nonetheless, ever present in her work. It acts like a magnetic field, pulling everything to the center, seeking explanations for brutality, finding none.
Much of her work expresses suppressed rage, suppressed aggression. There are ominous, empty woodlands, dark secrets, and shrouded spaces. A brooding sense of turmoil, loss of control and inevitability drift through many of her works. The obscenity and grotesque specter of death walks in the shadows.
Weinstein’s creative reach extends to artist book making and theatrical set design. These two special spheres give all of her work a dimensionality that is rare. As the Visual Arts Director for the Edgeworks Dance Theater of Washington, DC , Weinstein works with the renowned choreographer, Helanius J. Wilkins. His innovative vision focuses on cross cultural, collaborative productions. In works such as Cold Case; Fearless: How Men learned to Fly; The Edge of Uncertainty; Determining Factor and Midrash: Filling an Empty Space, they explore issues of racial representation through the eyes of a disenfranchised group. The ensemble was founded to break down, through dance, the stereotypes of African American men. For the backdrop of Cold Case, Weinstein provided portraits from her Dead Boys series which serve to underscore the street-smart, hard edge hopelessness of the dancers.
As a book maker, Weinstein leaves her own mark. Her titles include The Death of Moses; Miriam’s Cup; a Woman’s Haggadah; the Writing Tablet; Ruth and Naomi, and The Golem. The book covers are often rough slabs of wood or terra cotta, incorporating found objects chosen for their relevance to the subject. Weinstein uses vellum to create the aura of an ancient document, hand calligraphed and embellished with gilt borders, suggesting archival, medieval manuscripts. The Writing Tablet is a beeswax slab awaiting the stylus of the scribe. Reflections on War is unsentimental and forthright, alluding to censorship, de-humanization, anonymity and covered in a frantic script. The books play an important role since her work that is directly connected to the memory of the Holocaust incorporates almost illegible notations and ‘messages’.
Collage material and technique is used by Weinstein in various media. Books, objects, set design, enhanced drawings are heightened by the use of found elements and photographs that are redolent of the subject. Multiple photographic images are overlaid and juxtaposed to heighten anxiety, threat and loss. She often uses a subtle, moody impressionistic pastel background for these collages, pairing emotion and reality. The layered, memory scrapbook aspects are a commentary on loss, absence, negative memory and stand in for ‘missing’ personal journals.
Joyce Ellen Weinstein sustains an interest in exploring the interaction of time and place, the impact of site and landscape in relation to tradition and ritual. She fulfills our expectation of a distinguished mind and sensibility paired with the skills to bespeak her passionate concerns.