From Pearl Hirshfield, February 20 – March 10, 1995, Gallery 101, University of Wisconsin-River Falls

Ever since God’s first tenants were evicted from their garden apartment, there has been an ongoing debate: What is art? Is there such a thing as art for art’s sake? Can art and politics fuse into revelation? I remember such a debate when I was a sophomore at McKinley High School. The judges called it a tie. What could be fairer for an afternoon of such profound meaninglessness? 

The awful truth is that the air we breathe is political. (Today, this is literal truth.) Politics suffuses our bone-deep lives, whether we like it or not. When, during my young boyhood at a men’s hotel, I heard a guest proclaim, “I never discuss religion and politics,” something told me he was lying through his teeth. I was right; he turned out to be a fervent devotee of Father Coughlin. Today, both religion (organized) and politics have, in many quarters, become one, never mind the Constitution. That’s why Pearl Hirshfield’s exhibit is of considerable relevance now. 

We are suffering from a national Alzheimer’s disease in which all our yesterdays are forgotten. We have erased from our consciousness the traumatic epochs of J. Edgar Hoover, the House Un-American Activities Committee and the endemic xenophobia that went along. And so today, we have Jesse Helms, the religious right and a mean-spiritedness wearing the cloak of righteous ness. Unless we remember, and overcome a self-imposed amnesia, we’re in for a rough ride. That’s the real reason Pearl’s exhibit is on the button. 

Studs Terkel 

For more than thirty years Pearl Hirshfield has worked in a wide range of mixed media documenting events and situations of this coruscated century with insight and unrelenting passion forming a rending view of our contemporary histories. It’s surprising if not shocking that this work is not better known to national and international audiences. But in the kind of paradox that is so evident under modernism/post-modernism, frequently the work that speaks most directly or incisively to the strident events of this world is the work that the art world most refuses to acknowledge in the art world’s anxious quest for perfect resolutions. 

Hirshfield’s topics “American Dream,” “The Thought Controllers,” “Mad[e] in U.S.A.,” “Third World Police Torture-Chicago Style,” etc. indicate aspects of the range of her work but don’t begin to indicate the probing and analytic force of her art. The work cuts through stereotypes and conventional rhetoric and strikes home. Hirshfield’s art speaks to our times with powerful integrity and experimental directness. 

Leon Golub 

From Shadows of Auschwitz, Witness and Legacy Exhibition, University of Wisconsin at River Falls

Pearl Hirshfield is a Chicago-born installation artist whose life has been heavily involved in political and social issues and whose art reflects a necessity of involvement. Her installation have dealt with far—ranging subjects such as McCarthyism, feminist issues, abortion rights, police brutality, the Ku Klux Klan and cultural differences. She often opts for theatrical presentations in installations, utilizing disparate elements such as mirrors, sound systems, water fountains, and texts of diaries recorded on audio tape. Her installation…Shadows of Auschwitz, is an environment of memory with negative and positive spaces that recreate part of the road to death at Auschwitz. In this provocative work, viewers become victims as actual Auschwitz camp numbers reflect on their own images.

Stephen C. Feinstein, Co-curator of Witness and Legacy, University of Wisconsin at River Falls

Pearl Hirshfield is the only installation artist in the Witness and Legacy exhibition who was born in America. Her family, of Russian-Jewish background, arrived before the events of the Holocaust. As a Chicago native, she represents the American humanist conscience. A quick glance at her extensive past political actions reveals her involvement, both as artist and as political activist, on issues pertaining to the peace movement, nuclear disarmament, fighting racism, and supporting rights for women. As she has articulated in a personal statement, “my art centers on the outrage I feel when confronted with the inequities and injustices of society, whether local, national, or global.” Because of her world-encompassing view, Hirshfield expresses her personal linkage to the events of the Holocaust as she continues: “I have been to Auschwitz-Birkenau…to find any trace of relatives who perished…It has been an ongoing painful and difficult process.” The same trip took Hirshfield to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where she tried to make personal connections with the survivors of this disaster of war. Reflecting on both, Hirshfield admits that she still continues to attempt to make sense out of these two events in her work.

At the entrance to Shadows of Auschwitz,…Hirshfield places a quote by Primo Levi: “Beyond the fence stand the lords of death, and not far away the train in awaiting…” This sets the physical and emotional mood of the installation space. The spectator is drawn into a darkened interior space, where the artist makes use of an array of vertical mirrors to effect dramatic changes in light and shadow, with light piercing through horizontal slots. The “height” of the experience awaits the viewer at the other side of the fence, where he encounters his own reflection with numbers across his body. The numbers are the actual Auschwitz numbers of survivors Hirshfield has met. They are authentic. Invention is no needed in this environment. An exit sign marked Ausgang directs one to the outside, but leaving with mentally tattooed numbers. Where does it lead to? Hirshfield would like to hope that we will all join the ranks of those protesting injustice, inhumanity, and persecution of every color or shape on the face of out globe.

Yehudit Shendar, Classical and Near Eastern Studies Department, University of Minnesota

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