Can emotional trauma become an intergenerational legacy?
It’s a question cartoonist Jonathan Rotsztain grapples with in Patterns, his one-man show on view at Fentster (402 College St., Toronto) until June 9.
Fentster is a storefront-window, art-exhibition space at Makom featuring installations that connect with the Jewish experience.
Rotsztain’s installation employs repeating patterns that include imagery of the Holocaust to depict unconscious intergenerational trauma transmitted by Holocaust survivors to their children and grandchildren.
Rotsztain, 33, said all four of his grandparents were Holocaust survivors. “As a child I was exposed to the events of the Holocaust. I was traumatized by those events and the consequences and that has had a big impact on all the art I make.”
The exhibit, which can only be viewed from the sidewalk, is dominated by three almost life-size male images. In fact, they are self-portraits of the artist in various emotional states.
These figures are seen against a backdrop of wallpaper with different repeating vignettes that reflect various ideas or thoughts permeating the artist’s unconscious mind.
For instance, there are two nightmarish scenes with Holocaust themes. The artist is seen as a baby in a crib that looks like Auschwitz. There is a barbed wire fence and the baby is wearing the striped concentration-camp uniform. Another scene shows the artist in bed dreaming about being chased by Nazi soldiers.
The main wallpaper motifs are framed by a dense leafy background intertwined with Jewish symbols like challahs, hamsas and stars of David.
Rotsztain said he and Fentster curator, Evelyn Tauben collaborated on the idea of using wallpaper as a metaphor for how the unconscious mind shapes one’s patterns of behaviour and thinking.
“His experience can be understood like the wallpaper in the family home,” Tauben said. “We become so accustomed to seeing it that we stop noticing it entirely.”
The exhibit is an extension of the artist’s “Self-Loving Jew” comics series.
“Evelyn wanted to expand Self-Loving Jew to an exhibition about trauma and memory,” Rotsztain said, explaining that the Self-Loving Jew is a comic series he has developed over the years to showcase his ideas about the diversity of Jewish life in a post-modern world.
“It’s another attempt to open up the tent of Judaism and take its best aspects. There are many ways to experience Judaism.”
Rotsztain, who works as a graphic artist, said he is a lifelong comic book reader. “It’s one of the primary art forms I’ve engaged with as a reader and creator.”
Although his first university degree is in history and English, he said drawing and doing comic book art was always a serious hobby. He went on to get a MFA in comic book art in Vermont.
When he was in graduate school he participated in several Jewish arts retreats that inspired him to create his Self-Loving Jew comic strip.
In 2014 he attended Tent, a week-long writing seminar for young Jewish artists. The following year he participated in a retreat run by Asylum Arts in Brooklyn, an organization geared to contemporary Jewish art.
When he moved back to Toronto in 2015, Rotsztain said he was looking for ways to engage in the arts in the Jewish community. He volunteered at Ashkenaz 2018 in the arts program, which Tauben co-ordinated.
Rotsztain is also in a group show with seven other comic book artists at the Jack Layton (Toronto Island) Ferry Terminal. The five-month show curated by the Lake Effect Projects closes in mid-May.
Patterns, will also be a satellite exhibit of the 2019 Toronto Comic Arts Festival, May 11 – 12. Tauben and Rotsztain will be on hand to give pop-up sidewalk talks at 3, 3:30 and 4 p.m. on May 12.