Just Is in the Art of Samuel Bak

Just Is_450.jpg
Just Is_450.jpg

Just Is in the Art of Samuel Bak


Essay by Gary A. Phillips

The origins of Lady Justice date back thousands of years; archetypes in Near Eastern, Egyptian, and Greco-Roman history suggest a near-universal ethical concern for restitution across different cultural systems, modern society’s most direct forebear being the Roman goddess Justitia, presiding enduringly over Western courthouses with her balance scales, swift sword, and blindfolded impartiality. Equally ubiquitous is the lex talionis, the biblical principle of reparation expressed most commonly as “an eye for an eye.” Yet Lady Justice and the lex talionis are also steeped in ambiguity; her iconic blindfold, intended to ensure fairness, might actually obscure sight, and the lex talionis, intended to counterbalance, might inspire limitless retaliation instead. Additionally, unwavering justice crumbles in the face of the grievous atrocities of the Holocaust, indicted under the enormity of incomprehensible human suffering and the weight of the millions murdered. What resolution could possibly bring the scales of justice back into equilibrium? In his enduring artistic style, Holocaust survivor Samuel Bak draws upon these culturally recognizable emblems of justice to interrogate and refashion them as alternative iconic images of Just Is.


In his illuminating essay, Gary Phillips invokes the German philosopher and social critic Theodor W. Adorno, who famously discussed the moral necessity of beauty after barbarity to express the inexpressible, to deliver justice by offering voice and consolation to the aggrieved—an arguably impossible task burdened by an obligation not to exploit or minimize suffering in the act of portraying it. The beauty of Samuel Bak’s paintings lie in this precarious balance, eschewing the chilling, dehumanizing and foreboding images of the Shoah for metaphorical evocations, offering instead personal representations of destruction and its partial mending that become symbols of survival and resilience, all rendered in a timeless painting technique.


In this series of paintings and drawings, Lady Just Is appears in varying conditions, poses, and garbs juxtaposed with familiar biblical and secular symbols of covenant in states of ruination: faded and cobbled rainbows, disintegrating Mosaic tablets of law, unblinking and stony eyes, sagging and unkempt blindfolds, defunct and imbalanced scales. Presiding over a landscape of devastation, these images are a graphic reminder of the precariousness of justice, and how justice loses its agency when it turns a blind eye to, or even becomes actively complicit in, the worst injustices. But they are also a hopeful contravention against the emotional and physical wreckage, a reminder that the restoration of the world, tikkun olam, is possible through the gathering and reassembly of the shards. Lady Just Is, shown to us through the hand of the artist, seeks to engage the viewer in a new moral law that stands squarely amid, not above or removed from, the destruction.

  • Published by Pucker Art Publications, Boston, MA, 2018
  • Distributed by Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, NY
  • Slip-cased hardcover book
  • ISBN: 978-1-879985-33-9
  • Price: $50.00
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