Sole of My Shoe Reviews
By Peter Goddard
Oct 05, 2011
It's already afternoon, but Howard Podeswa clutches his wake-up mug of coffee with desperation.
"So why were you up so late, Howard?" he's asked.
"Cooking," Podeswa says, "I was cooking."
A background story comes with just about everything the Toronto painter does but never more so than with "Sole of a Shoe: Three Generations of Painting," a panoramic exhibition with plenty of grit at Wynick/Tuck Gallery. This is about art and surviving the Holocaust — and family. (Podeswa was cooking an Indian meal to share with everyone connected with the show. "Prep took forever," he explains.)
Curated by fellow Toronto artist E.C. Woodley, "Sole of a Shoe," comes from the English translation of "Podeszwa," the family name of three generations of exceptional painters exhibiting together for the first time: the late Chaim Pinchas Podeszwa, his 86-year-old son Yidel Podeswa (who dropped the "z" along the way) and Chaim's equally z-less grandson, Howard, now 55.
Arranged with Woodley's astute sensitivity to the many overlapping historical narratives, the paintings and drawings range in size from Yidel's painstakingly detailed miniatures — a few not much bigger than a loony — to son Howard's blockbuster, Me With The Boys Who Helped Us (2011). An audacious, in-your-face painting, alive with bravura strokes and an almost savage heartiness, it shows the artist with three Polish good old boys whooping it up in Ivansk, the tiny village near Lodz where Chaim lived before World War II, Yidel and his brother first started painting and that Howard revisited in December 2009.
"It was to come to terms with the Pole within myself," Howard says and to be with "those who live there today and those who lived there during the war. I was intrigued by the thought of walking on the soil that my father and generations of Podeszwas before him had walked on. Through my contacts in Toronto, I had found that I often felt an instantaneous camaraderie and commonality with people from that area of the world."
In 1942, the Nazis shipped Chaim Podeszwa out of Poland's infamous Lodz ghetto. He simply vanished. "My father does not know how his father was killed," Howard reports.
The Podeszwa story is horrifically typical. "So great is the fear of Lodz Jews of those sealed cars that thousands have run from the city on foot," ran a story from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, reprinted in the New York Herald Tribune, Jan. 2, 1940.
One vast workhouse supplying finished goods to the Third Reich, Lodz was ruled by the "King of Lodz," Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, a successful Jewish businessman who lived high and mighty while fellow Jews suffered and died.
Infamous for his "send me your children" speech, Rumkowski turned over to the Nazis anyone unable to produce what was needed — the old and the young for the most part — as long as those remaining could keep on working. Yidel's sister, only 5 at the time, was deported at the same time as her father, never to be heard about again. By the war's end, the city's population had been reduced to some 900 survivors out of some 250,000 people.
Having survived the war, Yidel Podeswa was eventually sent from Auschwitz to Lager Kaufering camp where he began series of watercolours included in the show, a portrait of Rumkowski among them.
A contemporary news photo of Rumkowski was most likely Yidel's reference for his drawing. Done in heroic Soviet Realist style, it has to be understood as mocking the adulatory approach taken by the original Nazi press photographer. Yidel eventually moved to Canada with fellow artist Gershon Iskowitz, where the two attended the Ontario College of Art.
Howard also worked from photos taken by a friend during his day and night in Ivansk. The seemingly frantic brushwork evident through his paintings of the village suggests the sense of panic he felt as night fell in the town, his car got stuck and there was no one around to help.
In one painting he climbs into the locked Jewish Cemetery. In another, he's lost in its tall weeds. Intruding everywhere is a orangey-mustard yellow suggestive of searchlights featured in prison camp flicks. This lurid glow utterly dehumanizes A Farm Near the Jewish Cemetery (2011), carving the outlines of a house and barns into geometrical shapes.
"Oh yeah, there was fear," says Howard Podeswa. "I knew about the background of the place. I was about to freak out. Everywhere we go dogs are barking. This is farmland where people really don't want you knocking at their doors. And it is midnight, an unreal midnight, with a wonderland quality to it. I found I could relive that midnight day after day in the studio."
Only two of Chaim's surviving pieces, with their stark iconography, are in the show, both originally sent to Canadian relatives from Poland in the '30s.
One shows a young woman at peace with herself while surrounded by farm animals: a Polish paradise of sorts. The other depicts the exterior of a Jewish cemetery with its gates closed. Together the two paintings act as bookends to a terror-filled decade in European history as the Nazis prepared to send their planes to bomb Poland into submission in September 1939.
"My father was very curious about my encounter with the village," says Howard. "He hasn't been back since the war and was very apprehensive about me going. I think he was apprehensive that I would not get out."
"Sole of a Shoe: Three Generations of Painting: Chaim Pinchas Podeszwa, Yidel Podeswa and Howard Podeswa" is at Wynick/Tuck Gallery, 401 Richmond St. W., Suite 128, until Oct. 15. Peter Goddard is a freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Last updated Tuesday, Oct. 04, 2011 5:55PM EDT
Chaim Pinchas Podeszwa, Yidel Podeswa, Howard Podeswa at Wynick/Tuck Gallery
Until Oct. 15, Suite 128, 401 Richmond St. W., Toronto; wynicktuckgallery.ca
Themes of invisibility and abrupt erasure (indeed, murder) also permeate a multigenerational painting exhibition on offer at Wynick/Tuck Gallery. Entitled Sole of a Shoe, the exhibition presents works by three generations, grandfather to grandson, of "the painting Podeswas" – Chaim Pinchas Podeszwa, Yidel Podeswa (the Anglicized version of the family name – see above!) and Howard Podeswa.
Spearheaded by curator E.C. Woodley, Sole of a Shoe is a family story on canvas. Chaim Pinchas was killed in the Holocaust. His son Yidel survived, but spent many years constantly travelling, finally landing in Toronto. Grandson Howard, now in midlife, has been making and showing work in Canada and abroad for years. Thus, we see a kind of grim progress model in action, and the works reflect the life patterns of each artist.
There are only two of Chaim Pinchas's works known to have survived their maker: a painting of a small girl holding a chicken and a painting of a Jewish cemetery. They are both made in a "story picture" style, intentionally flat and naive, vernacular, in the manner of Post-Impressionist Henri Rousseau. They are blunt and direct, relaxed and confident. Yidel's works are far more fraught, often depicting occluded landscapes, indistinguishable terrains, and, much later in his life, fruit and food that appears to be just out of reach, as if the artist is still, decades later, uncertain of his safety. Yidel's works are also very small, occasionally wallet-sized – a byproduct of living an early adulthood in constant transit.
Howard's paintings are a whole other slippery ball of wax – pulsing with frantic strokes, liquid patches and a composition strategy that conflates spans of barren space against crammed, itching depictions of people, they are, in Howard's own words, attempts to "wrestle with the paint" (not to mention his always present family history). There is a freedom and expansiveness in Howard's paintings that would be unimaginable in his father's or grandfather's works, and yet Howard's paintings seem the least certain of the worlds they depict. Howard's works share Yidel's distrust of the tangible, the idea of anything lasting, as well as Chaim Pinchas's narrative drive.
It is said that trauma skips a generation. Bunk. Trauma mutates and regroups, finds new veins. Talent, however, is eternal.
Published on Tuesday, Oct. 04, 2011 5:00PM EDT