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Wilshire Boulevard Temple Launches a Unique Project to Bridge Religion and Art 

Thursday, Sep 5 2013
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These days, a lot of people want to get in on the game of exhibiting contemporary art in Los Angeles. Talk of soon-to-open venues is proliferating, from Eli Broad's museum downtown and the Hauser Wirth & Schimmel gallery co-headed by former MOCA curator Paul Schimmel to a new space housing art owned by the Marciano brothers of Guess Jeans.

One of the most exciting moves, however, comes from an unexpected source: the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, a 150-year-old Reform Jewish synagogue. As a key part of its massive, 10-year renovation-and-redevelopment campaign, currently under way, the temple is commissioning or purchasing major works of art by blue-chip artists, many of them developed specifically for the new temple complex.

A Memorial Wall designed by internationally known artist Lita Albuquerque was scheduled to be unveiled Sept. 4, when the temple's newly refurbished Magnin Sanctuary building reopens, just in time for the High Holy Days. A "wall carpet" by Israeli dance composer and textile artist Noa Eshkol, who was the subject of a well-received LACMA exhibition last year, has been purchased, to be installed at a later date. And a series of custom-designed bench installations by Jenny Holzer, known for her iconic Truisms artworks, is planned for completion by December. Commissions by nine more artists are being developed, and further announcements are expected by the end of the year.

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Such a marriage of art and religion in this day and age is rare. One of the more well-known combinations is Houston's Rothko Chapel, a nondenominational sacred space founded by philanthropists and Mark Rothko fans John and Dominique de Menil.

What's happening at Wilshire Temple, however, is less New Age–y and more of a throwback to the days when Michelangelo did his best work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

"For most of history, art and religion were synonymous," notes Rabbi Steven Leder, the temple's main driving force behind the art initiative. "In the mid–20th century, the two became opposed and critical of each other. With the temple redevelopment, I saw an opportunity to bring the two together again. Because they really do have a lot in common — they both seek transcendence through beauty and the sacred."

Wilshire Boulevard Temple was founded in 1862 as Congregation B'nai B'rith, at Temple Street and Broadway downtown, by some of L.A.'s earliest Jewish settlers. Its current Koreatown location, built in 1929, is on the National Register of Historic Places but has weathered its share of deterioration.

In 2004, its board of trustees decided that no less than a complete retrofit of the existing historic architecture, along with a significant expansion of the campus, was needed to serve the needs of its growing congregation.

The first phase, a restoration of the stunning sanctuary space supervised by conservation architect Brenda Levin, is now complete. By 2020, the campus will include new athletic facilities, an elementary school building, a social services center and a six-story parking structure.

Leder, a contemporary art enthusiast, wanted to add new art into the mix. He drew inspiration from a visit in 2001 to the Eldridge Street Synagogue on New York's Lower East Side. The synagogue fell into severe disrepair in the 1980s, and local citizens rallied and raised the money needed for a complete restoration. Included was a commission for a beautiful, brand-new stained-glass window by artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans. Now it's a museum and a National Historic Landmark.

As a Reform synagogue, the Wilshire Boulevard Temple is able to engage in more experimental pursuits than its Orthodox counterparts. Rabbi Leder observes that the temple already set a precedent in 1928, when the Warner brothers commissioned Hugo Ballin to paint its murals, which wrap around the interior of the sanctuary and tell the history of the Jewish people. "That was a bold, radical statement back then — to have figurative art inside the temple, which went against the Second Commandment," Leder says. "From the beginning, this temple has been determinedly modern."

The first new commission to be completed, Lita Albuquerque's Memorial Wall, spans the sanctuary's foyer area. The two-part wall consists of 10 electronic panels filled with a total of 1,700 azure-blue spheres, each one intended to memorialize a member of the congregation.

With the help of artists Aaron Bocanegra, Mattia Casalegno and Bill Kronholm, the panels will be programmed to light each sphere during the week that person died, as part of the Jewish ritual of remembering the deceased on the anniversary of his death. For one week each year, all the spheres will be lit. In the center of one of the panels is a large round plate bearing the Hebrew word yizkor, meaning "remember."

Albuquerque first gained fame as part of Los Angeles' Light and Space movement, creating painting, sculpture, performance and installation, but she has become known of late for her large-scale public artworks. Golden State, her complex installation at the state capitol mall in Sacramento, is the largest public-art commission ever undertaken by the state of California. Albuquerque's re-enactment of her own 1980 land-art piece, Spine of the Earth, got attention at Pacific Standard Time's Performance and Public Art Festival in early 2012.

The artist's primary interest is in exploring the human body's relationship to the earth, sky and larger forces of the cosmos — a concern that fits with designing a memorial. "Those who have passed are still among us — that's what I tried to achieve with this piece," Albuquerque says. "I love that you can see the blue of the wall through the doors of the sanctuary when you look back here from the stage. It's as if they [the deceased] are embracing the congregation. There is an endless flow of names in a subtle, honeycomb pattern, which harkens back to minimalist art at the same time that it evokes a thriving, rich community."

Jenny Holzer's Truisms, artworks that present provocative aphorisms such as "Abuse of power comes as no surprise" and "Raise boys and girls the same way," first came to attention in the late 1970s in the form of T-shirts, posters and stickers; they have since moved to more inventive formats and high-profile locations, such as a marquee in Times Square.

One format that has been increasingly popular is the public bench, typically using a heavy traditional stone like granite or marble, engraved with a customized grouping of Truisms. Wilshire Boulevard Temple's campus will be getting about a dozen of these benches, made variously out of Chinese Noir St. Laurent marble, black and gold marble and Pennsylvania Bluestone.

Leder, an avid Holzer fan, points out that her work evokes the Jewish reverence for text. He and Holzer's team are working together to generate bench inscriptions. "The writing will range from thoughtful to playful to mystical to goofy," Holzer says in an email. "May I leak a text under consideration? 'If you are a mensch, you can sit on this bench.' "

The artists welcomed the opportunity to work in the nontraditional setting; Albuquerque calls the temple "magnificent" and Holzer says she was a "goner" from the moment she saw the Byzantine Revival sanctuary dome.

Albuquerque also praises Leder's attempt "to break down the walls between areas of life that we falsely think are separate," she says. "Art and religion are both philosophical inquiries. When I go to a museum, it's like being in a temple for me."

Wilshire Boulevard Temple is at 3663 Wil­shire Blvd., Koreatown. (213) 388-2401, wbtla.org.

Reach the writer at ccheh@hotmail.com

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