Having Marc Ash's "Tous Ensemble" land in St. Petersburg for its U.S. debut is pretty remarkable. The group of mixed media works by the world-traveling, French-based artist has been shown in some very elite venues, including the Venice Bienale, and it's on view at the Florida Holocaust Museum through June 22.
More than its impressive pedigree, "Tous Ensemble" has a lot to say. It's one of the few Holocaust-based art exhibitions that mostly transcends the specific tragedy through the strength of its approach.
You see that difference in comparing it to Judith Weinshall Liberman's paintings and quilts, also on the museum's second floor, which are conceptual, as are Ash's works, and powerful but limited by their single reference point.
Ash's assemblages work on two levels, as reminders and warnings. They're small and usually square surfaces encased in rough wood and metal frames, encrusted with thick paint and embedded with objects that seem to be flailed within an inch of their existence, an appropriate visual metaphor for oppression and genocide.
Some are laced with barbed wire, and the opening work, which takes the name of the larger exhibition, is the most referential to the Holocaust. Tous Ensemble (All Together) has a barbed wire circlet centered on a patch of striped fabric, like prison uniforms, stenciled with "Dieu ?"("God ?"). Surrounding them are more patches shaped in single triangles or pairs forming Stars of David in colors the Nazis used to identify which category (Jew, homosexual, gypsy, for example) qualified a person for a concentration camp or for extermination. The stenciled numbers 1 through 6 are scattered around, a recurring motif that I take to refer to the six death camps and the estimated 6-million Jews killed.
Other works are more universal: a handprint embedded in paint, a rusted facsimile of a peephole that could be on any prison door. One of the best is a group of spikes Ash punched with holes to simulate eyes, arranged behind a grate. In another context they could be whimsical, even funny, suggesting a healthy curiosity in a normal time. Behind bars, they're haunted souls with empty eye sockets. In another work, a single spike is flattened into a graceful curve. Maybe I'm stretching, but it reminded me of a lone sperm with nowhere to go and a life thwarted. The hook dangling from an elegant medallion in Torture would look at home in the Inquisition; the lock sealed with a red blob of wax in Convoi (Convoy) could be medieval.
Like all art documenting human loss on a large scale, "Tous Ensemble" has a presumptive depressing effect, mitigated by its restraint. It does not try to ennoble the suffering visited on so many innocents, and it doesn't get preachy or outraged. Ash avoids those obvious tugs on our emotions by qualifying rather than quantifying objects. They're used sparingly and starkly, as emblems. What's really depressing is reading headlines so many years after the Holocaust and realizing these emblems are still relevant. One could ask, as Ash does, where was God, but more to the point, where are we now?
Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or email@example.com.