A Golem that Ended Well
Article in the Exhibition Catalogue GOLEM
Emily D. Bilski
Over a period of nearly four decades, Michael David has returned again and again to the Golem legend as subject and inspiration: in a series of powerful and controversial swastika-shaped canvases; in self-portraits, in photography; in mixed-media works that push the boundaries of what constitutes painting.
David’s use of the encaustic medium—mixing pigment with hot beeswax—has become a hallmark of his art, a technique that he finds analogous to the legendary methods of golem making, which employed wax, dirt, clay and fire. For the artist personally, the technique itself proved to be a golem: he was poisoned by toxic gasses that were released in the heating process involved in working with encaustic, leaving him partially paralyzed. After intensive rehabilitation, he was able to return to painting, though some impairment remains. Making art, like making golems, can be dangerous, yet artists and golem makers continue to take risks. The transcendental nature of making art, and the compulsion that artists feel to create, is akin to the longing of the mystics for connection with the divine, which motivates them to make golems. David’s A Cluster of Blessings, in its imagery and the process of its creation, embodies both the transcendent and destructive aspects of golem making. David took the work’s title from the Buddhist writings of Nichiren Daishonin, who in a 1280 letter characterized Enlightenment as "the place of the cluster of blessings where the Buddhas and bodhisattvas dwell."
The supporting panel was created from older works, which he pieced together and repurposed. To create its animated surface, David affixed an accretion of items that reflect ten years of his studio practice, including old paint tubes, rags, brushes, sticks, work clothes and flowers brought by his students from their gardens over the course of a year. Pouring paint, wax and resin over the surface unified these disparate elements.
Later, David and some friends subjected the work to burning, a fire that raged out of control and, inadvertently, nearly consumed the work, like a golem run amok. Finally, the work was left in a field for a year, exposed to the vagaries of nature. Each of these processes involved a transformation of materials in the service of creating a work that is, for the artist, both golem and "anti-golem," defined by the artist as "a golem that ended well."
One could interpret the blessings alluded to in the work’s title as those accrued by David over years of productive work, as artist, teacher and mentor, bolstered by a supportive community. Though its ashen surface suggests death, as with forest fires that ultimately clear the way for new generations of trees, signs of rebirth peak through in the brilliant patches of yellow and orange hue. Subject and process are unified here. David’s work, like the story of the golem, is transformation incarnate. A Cluster of Blessings was created from materials that have been transformed by fire and nature, but ultimately by the artist’s hand, eye and intellect.
Emily D. Bilski is an art historian, the main focus of her work is the interface between art, cultural history, and the modern Jewish experience as well as contemporary art. She works as a curator and counselor for museums in the United States, Europe, and Israel. Her books Berlin Metropolis: Jews and the New Culture: 1890-1918 (1999) and Jewish Women and Their Salons: The Power of Conversation (2005) were both awarded the National Jewish Book Award.