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The Contemporary Jewish Museum features three artists of Jewish heritage
Robbin Légère Henderson, Market Day, In the Pale of Settlement from the In The Pale Series, 2013, scratchboard, 16 x 20 in. Courtesy of the artist. Chasing Justice. On view November 19, 2015–February 21, 2016. The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA.- Inspired by the biblical exhortation of Deuteronomy (16:20) to “pursue justice and justice alone,” The Contemporary Jewish Museum presents Chasing Justice, a new exhibition featuring the work of Arnold Mesches, Johanna Barron, and Robbin Henderson, three artists of Jewish heritage who have, through activism, research, and engagement with the government, produced bodies of work that explore different approaches to this Jewish commitment. From surveillance to arrest, the three artists shine a light on controversial government practices that often remain hidden, unseen, or forgotten.

“Amid current political debates over hi-tech surveillance, from the NSA to iPhone videos of police actions, this exhibition explores issues of government surveillance and power—both historically and today,” says Curator Renny Pritikin. “Chasing Justice is a timely exploration of how three contemporary Jewish artists engage with government bureaucracies and familial legacies in an effort to create a more just world."

Director Lori Starr adds, “Whether it is using censored FBI files to create revelatory art, enabling audiences to peer into the hidden hallways of power, or seeing how a woman’s fight for justice resonates today, this exhibition provides so many opportunities to reflect on and discuss themes increasingly relevant to twenty-first century life.”

Chasing Justice features ten pieces from Arnold Mesches’ series The FBI Files (2001–03). A life-long activist, Mesches petitioned the government for access to the FBI’s files on him, utilizing the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to better understand the way his government has tracked and viewed him. When more than seven hundred pages of his FBI file were released—containing often-heavily redacted records dating from the 1940s through the 1970s—Mesches saw those pages as a canvas. By adding color, images from popular culture, and creating juxtapositions between the new elements and the blacked-out sheets of paper, Mesches turned the government’s investigations of him into portals for creative expression, resulting in the creation of a kind of illuminated manuscript for the modern world.

Johanna “Joby” Barron of Portland, Oregon, also used the FOIA to obtain the starting materials for her ongoing series Acres of Walls (2015). Barron wanted to get a glimpse inside the secretive and mysterious CIA headquarters in Virginia and requested information on the abstract paintings that hang in the hallways there. The publicly inaccessible collection was loaned to the CIA in the 1970s by Vincent Melzac, a Jewish American businessman and art collector. Barron has only been able to gain a partial accounting of these works. In Acres of Walls, Barron recreates a selection of those paintings in 3/4 scale and displays documentation of her research and interactions with the CIA including denials, appeals, redacted pages, and correspondence. Approximately twelve of the works from this series will be presented in Chasing Justice.

The third featured artist is Berkeley-based Robbin Henderson, who contributes 55 artworks created as part of her portfolio, Matilda Robbins: Immigrant, Wobbly, Feminist (2013–15). Matilda Robbins was a Jewish immigrant from Russia who became an itinerant labor activist throughout the Northeast in the years before WWII, and was also Henderson’s grandmother. Henderson’s work uses the unpublished memoir of Robbins—the leader of the first strike in Detroit against the auto industry, labor organizer, editor, social worker, and single mother—as the basis for a suite of original black and white scratchboard drawings. This includes a recreation of Matilda being arrested in Detroit. Through the creation of a sort of “graphic memoir” representing her grandmother’s story, Matilda Robbins: Immigrant, Wobbly, Feminist provides a contemporary interpretation of what pursuing justice in the early twentieth century looked like.

Arnold Mesches lives in New York City and Gainesville, Florida. He has had some 141 solo exhibitions and has work in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the National Gallery in Washington, DC, the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, NY, and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. He has been awarded an artist fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts and three from the Pollock–Krasner Foundation.

Johanna Barron has an MFA from UC Davis and a BA from Evergreen State, near Seattle, WA. She has had recent shows at the Peekskill Project, Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art, PDX Contemporary Art in Portland, OR, and the Pompidou Center in Paris, France. She was awarded a graduate Fellow Award and Residency by the Headlands Center for the Arts, Sausalito, CA for 2010-11.

Robbin Henderson attended Reed College in Portland Oregon; holds a English Literature from UC Berkeley, and studied painting and printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute. Her work has been shown in solo and group exhibitions in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, New York City, in Europe, Central America, and New Zealand and is in public and private collections in Washington DC; New York City; Los Angeles; Taos, New Mexico; Masterton, New Zealand; Managua, Nicaragua; and Torino, Italy.

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