Professor Mark Dean Johnson is Co-Curator of 'Contraption' at Contemporary Jewish Museum

Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Photo by John Gutmann of grad student checking temperatures in a lab

J. (SAN FRANCISCO) --Contraption curators Renny Pritikin, the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s chief curator, and Mark Dean Johnson, professor of Art at San Francisco State University, also challenge museumgoers to consider whether there are any particular Jewish aesthetic perspectives in relation to machinery and technology.

All of the artists in the exhibit were either born and raised in the Golden State, or spent a majority of their working lives here. And all of them seem to have a certain preoccupation with machines and their complexities.

Did this stem from their forebears’ working-class experiences as sweatshop and factory workers in New York and other large U.S. cities during the early part of the 20th century? Was it simply their proximity to a manufacturing base as a mostly urban-dwelling population? Or was their focus on how the machines squeezed the life out of immigrants who, day in and day out, eked out a living on them?

Rachel B. Gross, the John and Marcia Goldman Professor of American Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University, posits another plausible theory. Jews, she says, have always been interested in contraptions. As she writes in “Moving Parts: Contraptions and Jewish Traditions,” an essay included in the exhibit’s catalogue, what, after all, are tefillin (phylacteries), an eruv (a circumscribed urban boundary created by Shabbat-observing Jews) and the Talmud but Jewish “contraptions” that resolve “religious dilemmas through the particularities of symbolic logic?”

Photo: John Gutmann, Grad Student Checking Ultra-Low Temperatures in Giauque’s Lab, UC Berkeley, 1949 (detail cropping). Modern gelatin silver print, printed 1980s. Courtesy of the John Gutmann Trust Archive.