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'Tender Shreds': Art Explores Israeli Sexuality and Politics

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Andi Arnovitz's "Tender Shreds" at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City is a powerful exhibition of artworks that combine Arnovitz's unique feminist and Jewish Orthodox viewpoints. Born in Prairie Village, Kan., "Tender Shreds" is a home coming for Arnovitz, who moved to Israel in 1999. While true to her religious beliefs, Arnovitz's work prods and engages issues of sexuality and politics in Israel.

Many of the works in "Tender Shreds" are clothing. The garments hang in glass display cases, pressed flat and made of both fabrics and more unusual materials like books, paper, rocks and hair. Each piece of clothing is intended to be read, not worn, as each material becomes a symbol in a longer chain of reflections.

A great example of Arnovitz's ability to create metaphors through clothing is a work titled "Wearing our Worries." Seen from a distance, the white garment looks like any other polka dotted dress. But upon approaching, the viewer notices printed words on each polka dot, all of which reflect the artist's worries. Written on some polka dots are worries shared by many women like "getting pregnant" and "infertility," while others are concerns more specific to life in Israel like "Bombs." Some of the polka dots reflect nearly irrational fears like "Bears" and "Ultra Violet Rays." This visual technique of the small text coming into focus as we investigate is similar to how we must get to know a person to learn their inner fears and dreams. The stuffed polka dot patches are dense and opaque, as if worry were like a tumor growing inside us, bulging beneath the skin.

Another work, titled "If Only They Had Asked Us," deals more specifically Judaism and life in Israel. A brightly colored tunic, more than 4,000 tiny scrolls of different colors are bound and tied together in a rainbow pattern. Each scroll contains scanned text taken from the Gemara, books of Jewish law. As the title suggests, the work refers to the lack of inclusion of female and queer voices in those traditional texts, but also in contemporary conversations.

Like the parable of Joseph and his coat of many colors, Arnovitz' tunic is both a mantle of authority (quite literally as it made of written laws) and a symbol of sacrifice. In the story, Joseph is given a coat by his father, cast into a pit by his jealous brothers and later sold into slavery. Joseph's coat symbolizes the authority and perfection of divine law and the imperfection of the mortal world. Just like Joseph's coat, "If Only They Had Asked Us" reminds us of the imperfection our laws and beauty inherent to challenging injustice.

"Scarf for a Refugee" is a sheer, thin piece of silk, with small smooth rocks sewn into pouches across the fabric. Small, possibly sized for a child, the scarf is so thin that it would provide no warmth. The stone -- a symbol which has come to mean pain for some and resistance to others -- here becomes a weight, a shackle which the refugee carries around. By sewing the rocks between the sheer fabrics, Arnovitz suggests the social invisibility of refuges who live on the edges of society. Alternatively, we could read the scarf as a sadistic form of high fashion. As the sheer fabric and weight have no utilitarian value, the scarf could symbolize the detached world of the rich and beautiful, where grunge and poverty becomes a designer chic and emaciated thinness a form of sexuality.

In a lecture at the opening of the exhibition, Arnovitz said that "It is possible to live in America and read the paper, and somehow feel like what you read is happening somewhere else to someone else, in Israel it was suddenly personal. Every single thing that happens there -- it affects me." That sentiment could not be more accurate than in the suburb Overland Park, Kan., where the exhibition is located. Buried within a strangely barren maze-like business park, past empty parking garages and large office buildings with corporate names that reveal nothing about the business held within, "Tender Shreds" has that feeling of being about someone else, somewhere else.

Yet, this feeling of distance present in the exhibition is perfectly contrasted by the personal nature of Arnovitz's work. Always, the modern principles of feminism and individuality are negotiated through the traditional values of being together in a community of faith. True radicals and conservatives may find that Arnovitz's work doesn't go far enough, but its balanced nature and lack of extreme rhetoric are what make Arnovitz's artwork and desires for the future seem so sincere.

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Andi Arnovitz will be included in the Museum of Biblical Art's upcoming group exhibition "As Subject and Object: Contemporary Book Artists Explore Sacred Hebrew Texts" up June 14 through September 29 at MOBIA, 1865 Broadway, New York, NY 10023