Elements of Alchemy: Prints by Paul Weissman

HUC-JIR Museum
One West 4th Street
New York, New York

    • On View: September 4, 2007 - January 27, 2008
    • Artist's Reception: Tuesday, September 25, 5:30-7:30 PM

Inspired by Primo Levi's The Periodic Table, Paul Weissman employs multi-layered printmaking techniques that incorporate eponymous elements and metaphorical imagery to examine man's relationship to basic building blocks of the universe and to serve as a mirror reflecting upon, and questioning, humankind's values and conditions. He observes our planet, constructed of these elemental building blocks and fraught with the consequences of contemporary human intervention - ecological disasters, global warming, warfare, consumerism, nuclear proliferation, radioactive fallout, genetic engineering, materialism, and even vanity-driven plastic surgery.

"My interest in printmaking is as much about the physicality of the process as it is about communication," says Paul Weissman. "I layer multiple printmaking techniques and juxtapose aspects of content - images with metaphors, the general with the specific, pictorial illusion with elements in real scale - to engage the intellect. The works are meant as mirrors to reflect upon and question humankind's values and conditions."

Utilizing the eponymous elements as his materials, and employing lithography for its elemental, magical process - scratching on stone is a satisfying alternative to the dehumanization of our computer-driven age - Weissman focuses on human error, on the ethics of choice, and on moral enlightenment. The intrinsic uniqueness of each monoprint as well as the fragility of his paper and ink materials speak to human individuality and frailty, alerting us to the lurking destructive forces that endanger survival. The density of his surfaces, diverse print-making techniques, and multi-layered imagery reinforce the complexity of his themes.

Weissman, who currently lives and works in Hawaii, has combined the aspects of science, social anxiety, spirituality and complex cultural references to achieve his compelling, layered images. "Referring to the Periodic Table of Elements for the structure of this print series, Weissman takes the 'virtues' and attributes of each element actually and metaphorically -- their physical and chemical characteristic properties including weight, density, color, mutability, and interaction, as well as the real and magical powers imputed to elements since antiquity," says Laura Kruger, exhibition curator.

The series of 11 prints begins with 26 April 86 + 17, referencing uranium and depicting a satellite photograph of the aftermath of the nuclear explosion at the Chernobyl Power Plant in Ukraine and the radioactive contamination 17 days later as the fallout drifted over the Western Soviet Union, Europe, and Eastern North America. Carbo (carbon) describes our dependence on oil and its relation to global warming and pollution. Ferrum (iron) expresses the artist's anti-war perspective and a call to resolve differences by overcoming religious fervor. Neos (neon) juxtaposes the night sky with bar coding, alluding to the visual pollution of consumerism and commodification. Plumbum (lead) depicts the poisonous metal's corrosive power within a female pelvis, describing its cumulative accretion in the bones, leading to birth defects, and impact on generations unborn. Aurum (gold) refers to vanity, avarice, and envy, with layers of handprints surrounding the idolatrous biblical symbol of the Golden Calf.

Bonds (hydrogen), a 14-layer lithograph/woodcut, describes the life-supporting characteristics of water, the helical form of DNA, the hydrogen star-bearing nebula, a cumulonimbus cloud, and the hydrogen bomb mushroom - demonstrating the duality of creation and destruction, with the interference of humankind tending toward apocalypse.

Caesius (cesium), used in atomic clocks to keep perfect time, is contrasted to the ways in which human beings measure their lives - through good days, moments, and goals. Arsenic, the poison used by the Borgia Pole Alexander VI to rid himself of upstart Cardinals and Bishops, comments on human greed. Silicon contrasts computer-generated digital imagery with the eternal search for human contact and physical enhancement - commenting on contemporary means of anonymous communication and self-presentation. Helios (helium) references the Icarus legend and da Vinci's Vetruvian Man with sun worship imagery from Africa, Sweden, and South America, to decry human slavery.

"Paul Weissman confronts the viewer with the human capacity for both good and evil, for truth and duplicity, for peaceful aspirations and genocide," notes Rabbi David Ellenson, President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, in his Foreword to the exhibition catalog. "His works are intended to serve as a call to action and conscience."

Rabbi Norman J. Cohen, Provost and Professor of Midrash at HUC-JIR, adds, "In the Biblical and Rabbinic tradition, the Torah is likened to three substances that are fundamental to human life: a tree of life, a fiery law, and living waters. Each substance has an inherent duality, both constructive and destructive, thus emphasizing human responsibility to live life according to a set of values that impels us to utilize the elements of the universe for the betterment of humankind and the world. Paul Weissman, like the Deuteronomist (30:15, 19), calls out to us, saying "See, I have set before you this day, life and goodness, death and evil... Choose life!"

    • Exhibition Catalog: Foreword by Rabbi David Ellenson, Essays by Rabbi Norman J. Cohen, and Laura Kruger, 20 pages; 11 illustrations.
    • Museum Hours:
      - Monday-Thursday, 9 PM - 5 PM; Friday, 9 AM - 3 PM
      - Selected Sundays, 10 PM - 2 PM on September 30; October 14, 28; November 11; December 2, 16; January 13, 27
    • Admission: Free. Photo ID Required.
    • Tours/Information: Contact Elizabeth Mueller at (212) 824-2205 or emueller@huc.edu