Anti-Semitism is on the rise. Not just nationwide, but also locally. In April, graffiti praising Hitler’s attempt to exterminate the Jews was found written on the Community Building in downtown Spokane.
Just a few days ago, a Spokane rabbi’s Facebook page promoting a Holocaust survivor’s speaking event was flooded with racist attacks.
Next door to the defaced Community Building, at Saranac Art Projects, Melanie Lieb Taylor is fighting back, through art. Her timely show “Echo: A Visual History of Anti-Semitism,” is a hard-hitting exhibition of installations and paintings that serve as a window into what it means to be a Jew.
“Ironically, it’s completely possible to live your whole life in Spokane and not to have been exposed to actual Jewish people, but rather, to have been exposed to only negative Jewish stereotypes,” Lieb said. “You grow up, hearing your own family or friends saying something negative about Jews, and it becomes an accepted part of your vocabulary.”
Lieb’s paintings painfully spotlight many of the negative Jewish stereotypes that continue to this day. She deconstructs images from ancient religious art depicting Jews as hook-nosed, wine-guzzling fools and from modern Nazi propaganda of Jews as subhuman parasites intent on owning the world.
Her examination of anti-Semitic postcards popular at the turn of the century are especially discomfiting. The postcards remind viewers that depicting Jews with large noses, grotesque feet and hands, and deformed bodies and showing them as money-hungry, cheap, and cunning was as commonplace at the time as postcards of Niagara Falls.
Lieb’s reliance on the color white throughout the show is striking due to the resulting isolation of her images. She surrounds the Jewish caricatures with white paint, a hue of almost heavenly light, embracing the negative spaces and feelings of disjointedness. Her hand does not shy away from the despicable images, but rather isolates and owns them. She forces us to look, coldly and clinically, and somehow the rats, monkeys and greedy fools seem small and petty when exposed to so much light.
“I feel like white is sort of this interesting combination of the absence of color, and then also the concept of light versus dark, light versus death,” Lieb said.
“White to me is sort of emptiness, but it is also an inner light,” Lieb added. “The idea that this group of people has been discriminated against and on the fringe of society for thousands of years, but still kept going, and even prevailed on some level, that’s where I feel the powerful light.”
In addition to paintings hung on the wall are mixed media installations scattered throughout the show. Many of the installations are arresting reminders of the Holocaust, when 6 million Jews were murdered.
Lieb emphasizes that this genocide is recent history. People who lived through it are still alive today.
“I want this show to educate people. We need to learn and never forget the atrocities of our past,” Lieb said.
The first artwork you encounter upon entering are life-sized figures of a man, woman and child. The mannequins are made entirely of real, white flowers. (Lieb’s job as a florist is unmistakable here.) The floral figures are so pretty, it may take a moment to realize that the family is imprisoned behind a barbed wire fence. And the people are beginning to wilt. By the end of the show in two weeks, the blossoming family should be brown, shriveled, and dead.
There are piles of familiar objects placed strategically about the installation: old violins and cases, dozens of white-painted shoes, 200 gold-plated teeth.
“These piles symbolize what was taken from people, and not just physically, but symbolically,” Lieb said. “Like these violins? They were people’s lives, their careers, and now they are in a heap.”
Lieb grew up in Chicago, but has traveled the world, and lived in Michigan and Hawaii, where she also participated in art exhibitions. She and her husband moved to Spokane in 2014, and she since has shown at Terrain, Bazaar, Artfest and the Liberty Building. This is her most political show to date.
“I think our new political situation and the rise in anti-Semitism has inspired a lot of people to think about how much freedom we have, and to worry about and having our rights threatened,” Lieb said.
Lieb was inspired to produce “Echo” after attending the Women’s March last January. Specifically, she was dismayed when local organizers removed a local rabbi from the list of speakers at the pre-march rally.
“It was like this huge sort of heart-wrenching moment when they didn’t allow her to speak,” Lieb said. “Because it was like this one time that this tiny little community in Spokane was going to get to tell 10,000 people that we’re here, and we are all in it together.”
“I know it wasn’t intentional (to include only Christian leaders), but I think the ignorance of it was startling,” Lieb said. “I knew I had work to do, and this is why I did the show.”
Lieb had always planned to call the show “Echo,” as a way to remind us that history repeats itself. But after Googling the word, she discovered that “echo” has a double meaning. It also refers to the triple parentheses that has become the secret symbol used by Neo-Nazis to identify Jews online.
When racist twitter or FB followers place an echo, or ((())) symbol, around a Jewish surname, it signals to other anti-Semites to target that individual for harassment on social media.
Her piece up at the Saranac Gallery of the triple parentheses, “Echo,” is already sold. But available to view. And ponder.