The Oxford English Dictionary defines “evil” as “profoundly immoral and wicked.” Ask most people, and that would mean torture, genocide, slavery and human trafficking.
Often what is considered an evil act will depend on a certain level of carnage. But not all atrocities are bloody and brutal; some are not even executed on a mass scale. Evil can also be insidious in nature—a malicious deed obscured by formality.
This premise is at the core of Evil: A Matter of Intent, a new art exhibition that opened April 20 at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU in Miami Beach and runs through October 1. The show features more than 70 artworks, spanning seven decades, that explore the many faces of evil—from the Holocaust and lynchings to the War on Women and lack of gun control.
“People don’t think about these things as evil,” said Jackie Goldstein, curator at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU. “[But] evil is not just terrorism.”
Evil: A Matter of Intent is a lesson on the subtlety of inhumanity in the midst of great barbarity. There are some pieces that show the most obvious manifestations of evil, such as Paul Margolis’s photograph, “Burning Towers 9/11/01,” which captured the first World Trade Center tower burning minutes before its collapse. Then there are other works of art that examine the consequences of brutal acts long after they’ve occurred, such as Leonard Mejselman’s “Hiroshima, A Child’s Shirt,” a semi-abstract painting meant to symbolize the enduring aftereffects of the atom bomb.
Nearly three dozen contemporary and modern artists contributed work to Evil: A Matter of Intent, which initially ran last year at the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. Its curator, Laura Kruger, first conceived of the exhibition after flipping through an issue of the New York Times over Sunday brunch and realizing each headline was “more terrible than the last,” she said.
But Kruger noticed a trend while reading the Times that day. The reporters weren’t covering natural disasters that devastated neighborhoods or wildfires that ravages rural communities. Instead, these terrible headlines “all came from one core: deliberate acts from politicians, leaders, wealthy people,” she said.
In putting together the show, Kruger wanted to both tackle and challenge what constitutes an act of malice—hence the name, Evil: A Matter of Intent, she said. “The denial of education. The denial of clean water. That’s evil, too.”
Not all of the artists featured in Kruger’s show in New York City have work hanging at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU. There are also some pieces special to the museum’s collection that Goldstein added to the Miami Beach exhibit, such as the red Ku Klux Klan robe she draped on a hulking mannequin.
Goldstein said she experienced “a lot of anger” when curating Evil: A Matter of Intent at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU. She said she often found herself questioning why people let these atrocities occur—why they didn’t do more to stop the Holocaust, the genocide in Rwanda and other horrific events throughout history. Goldstein hopes, though, that this exhibition sparks dialogue so that people “won’t stand by next time.”
“This is not an easy subject,” she said. “I want conversation to happen even if people disagree.”
“Sin Street,” mixed media photograph
In “Sin Street,” photographer Trix Rosen uses film noir to examine issues of violence against women, including transgender women. She uses the concept of the “femme fatale” and pulp fiction topography to underscore “the dangerous and hidden warning that is well learned by generations of girls,” Rosen said. “If you are too pretty, too aggressive or too sexual, you must therefore be ‘evil and shameless’ and you deserve to die, as the film noir heroine often dies.”
“Exodus II,” acrylic painting
In “Exodus II,” international artist Tamar Hirschl uses the figure of a Gestapo officer to address the history of the Holocaust and the suffering at the hands of the Nazis. The piece could be viewed as autobiographical; Hirschl’s father was killed in the Jasenovac concentration in Croatia, while she along with her mother and sister, fled to the border, but were captured and jailed. In the full triptych, “Exodus I-III,” there’s a figure dress in white, wearing a badge, a near replica of the Gestapo officer. Together, the two figures are meant to represent the complexities of morality, Hirschl said. “I want people to realize that good/evil is not a binary,” she continued, “and that there is a similar power wielded by saviors and oppressors, only used to different ends.”
“Boy With A Gun” series, pastels on canvas
Grace Graupe-Pillard’s “Boy With A Gun” series, created in the late 1980s, explores the nature of violence by depicting a boy and a man both wearing helmets and holding rifles. She used pastels on canvas to design the two life-sized figures, which she then cut out and affixed to hanging banners. The silhouettes show that “a boy’s game with a gun often grows up to be a man with a gun,” Graupe-Pillard said. But “Boy With A Gun” is not only commentary on gun violence and gun control. The haunting series also addresses “the vital need for checks and balances against imperious power where politics triumphs over common decency and respect for basic humanity of its citizens,” she said.
John Kevin Lawson
“Portrait of the Philosopher Danny Klein,” mixed media collage
John Lawson’s “Portrait of the Philosopher Danny Klein” is one of the more subtle pieces that explore the concept of violence. Lawson interviewed philosopher Danny Klein about his views on evil, which he typed up and pasted onto a mixed media portrait of the scholar. The portrait features survey maps, architectural drawings, wallpaper samples, inked paper, magazine cutting and stamps. “These are strange and often frightening times,” Lawson said. “I wanted to step outside of my own opinions, my own comfort zone, and capture a philosophical standpoint on evil.”