Biblical interpretation is one of the oldest and most traditional Jewish activities. When we think of it we immediately think of words, not pictures, and certainly not abstract images painted on material. And yet, since we are told that there are “seventy faces to the Torah,” this, too, can be one of its lesser known, or more innovative, faces. The unusual presentation of fabric as the very material of interpretation is what makes Chana Cromer’s artwork so striking.
Fabrics have a unique beauty of their own, and they can certainly be seen as works of abstract art, belonging more specifically to the category of fiber art, an expression coined in the 1970s for creative, experimental fiber objects. This type of artwork gives material new dimensions, taking it out of the realm of its conventional use for clothing, upholstery, curtains—all those facets of our protective “fabric of life.” We often think of diverse fabrics in hierarchical terms: jeans for the everyday, fine silk for elegant occasions, extraordinary brocades for the special clothing of monarchs. Chana’s choice of fabrics is of primary importance in the act of interpretation. But the addition of artistic elements—painting, printing, pressing—changes the basic fabrics into novel forms. These are no longer simply lovely pieces of material; they have acquired other, thought-provoking meanings.
Putting together these disparate elements—verbal interpretation of the Bible and fabric art—allows us to see either, and both, in different ways. When we look at Chana Cromer’s material before we have read the biblical verses to which they refer, they have a pure, abstract life of their own. But when we look at them again, after reading the words that inspired them, neither the fabrics nor the verses look the same. These seemingly totally abstract, ethereal works acquire a depth that is completely different in character from what they seemed to exhibit before.
In the Bible itself Joseph’s “coat of many colors” became more than just a garment that he happened to have been given by his father. For Joseph’s brothers, that piece of material assumed distinctive new values. It helped to provoke their own fabrications about Joseph’s history, and eventually it helped to reweave the threads of Jewish history itself.
Senior Curator of Art
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.