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Tradition and art collide in Hillel Gallery's 'Ritual Objects'

A bag of coffee beans would seem out of place at most art exhibits. But at "Ritual Objects: The Radical and The Practical in Art & Design," a bright red bag emblazoned with the black words "Eight O'Clock Coffee" is displayed as art, alongside paintings, tapestries and sculpture. The bag is just one among several pieces in the exhibit that pushes traditional boundaries of what constitutes art.

The exhibit, sponsored by the student-run Hillel Gallery Project, displays artwork by Brown and Rhode Island School of Design students and runs through Nov. 5. The Gallery Project committee began planning for the exhibit last spring by soliciting student submissions from both schools.

"This was a very complex project," said Jungmin Lee '11, co-chair of the Gallery Project.   

The Gallery Project committee settled on the theme of rituals as a way of encompassing multiple media, Lee said. Last year's Gallery Project co-chair, RISD senior Christina Graham, wrote in an e-mail to the Herald that she found the theme of rituals compelling because it connected the exhibit to "contemporary issues."

Submissions to the exhibit were judged by a panel of three jurors who selected one artist to win a cash prize. Daniel Belasco, an associate curator at the Jewish Museum in New York City, Maya Benton '98, a curator at the International Center of Photography and Rebecca Guber, director of the Six Points Fellowship, selected RISD alum Sarah Young as the winner.

In addition to the monetary prize, Young will also receive a write-up in a Jewish art journal, an internship at the International Center of Photography and a chance to exhibit her work at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, according to the Gallery Project's blog. Young said she plans to donate the majority of the prize to charity.

Young's work, like the exhibit as a whole, is multifaceted and warrants multiple looks to be fully appreciated. Her media include video, photography, wax, hair and even ritual-inspired performance art, documented for the exhibit with a photo series and props from her performance.

In an artist's statement  submitted to the Hillel Gallery Project, Young wrote that her pieces "explore how ritual has been passed down through the text to turn into existing practice."

Young said that the initial inspiration from Jewish texts and rituals led her "to find personal meaning through reinventing the ritual."

Though Young's work draws mainly upon traditional Jewish rituals, the works on display reflect diverse sources of inspiration. "Luxury Item for the Hunt," by RISD alum Cynthia Meyers, uses the form of an embroidered, painted 3-D canvas bag to convey ideas about hunting and nature. The creativity behind the medium and the intricate colors used are compelling — while staring at a bag for several minutes may be unusual in most circumstances, it seems like an obvious course of action here.

Other pieces, as with "Eight O'Clock Coffee," wouldn't initially strike viewers as art. But that is exactly why they are so much fun to see. "The Sacrament of Reconciliation," inspired by the Catholic ritual of confession, looks on first glance like it belongs in a science fair rather than an art gallery. But the apparatus is one of the most captivating pieces on display. Visitors to the exhibit can make confessions into a microphone, connected to a speaker in a bell jar. The bell jar muffles the words — while it's clear that something is being confessed, the sound is inaudible. Three red candles invoke old religion in a piece that looks otherwise completely modern and machine-like. It's a clever piece, and it's among the most immediately fun items in the show.

The Hillel gallery is roomy, and the number of pieces on display seems small in comparison to the available space. But this is almost a blessing: the feeling of intimacy developed with the pieces is hard to deny. Visitors to the exhibit must examine everything, or they might miss something — the water glasses on the floor that are actually Young's performance props, or the bench on the side that is really the beautiful, Cinderella-esque "Glass Bench" by RISD alum Adam Hyman.

On the whole, "Ritual Objects" is worth a visit — a long one to fully absorb each piece, or even a brief drop-by to check out the different media and ideas on display. The show addresses a topic that is both universal and multidimensional, making for a versatile and relatable experience.


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