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September 14, 2012

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Washington Post Review of "Kiss the Name of the Nine Muses Goodbye"

 

Tom Block and Micheline Klagsbrun:  

Kiss the Name of the 9 Muses Goodbye

Interspersed with Klagsbrun’s delicate and colorful pieces are Tom Block’s paintings, which are raw, streaky and black on white. These 10 mixed-media works (from a series of 80) portray archetypes the artist dubs “mystics.” Such portraits as “Bunny Mystic” and “Politician and Aide Mystic” (captured at “the quintessential Washington, D.C. cocktail party”) combine the childlike crudity of underground comics with the excitation of abstract expressionism. When Block calls these characters mystics, he doesn’t mean they’re serene.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/visual_arts/new-art-galleries-have-some-autobiographical-elements/2012/09/13/cb2d2992-fcf7-11e1-a31e-804fccb658f9_story_1.html

 

July 18, 2012

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Interview with Queens College Center for Ethnic, Racial & Religious Understanding

Steven Appel, Assistant Director of the Queens College Center for Ethnic, Racial & Religious Understanding in New York came to my talk at Monmouth University (NJ) on my Shalom/Salaam book, and has asked me to interview with the director of the program about possible collaborations this fall.

July 3, 2012

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JiwarArtist Residency

I have been invited to return to the Jiwar Artist Residency in Barcelona, for two weeks starting July 3.  I will be working on my third play in the Trilogy ("Night Out in Spain" -- appropriately titled), as well as doing research for my current non-fiction book ("Response to Machiavelli") and starting on a series of studies for portraits of medieval Christian mystics, for my "Shalom/Salaam/Pax" series of paintings.  

June 11, 2012

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White Noise -- Review in DC Theatre Scene

 

White Noise, performed by Wanderlust Theatre at the Fridge this weekend, is a play that’s impossible to separate from the exhibit of paintings by DC artist Tom Block. So I’ll begin by describing the paintings themselves.

Okay ….

You walk in, there are two huge paneled works that, at first glimpse, conjure up the obvious comparison to Jean-Michel Basquiat. Large, flowing 10 panel panoramas, Jiwar and Conference of the Birds are punctuated with Jungian motifs: phallic fingers, anguished faces, eyes, and teeth. Each panel goes for $2400.

Gigi Buscaglio as Joan with Jeff Kirkman III as Tim (Photo courtesy of White Noise)

But closer inspection indicates that Block may not make the minimum wage on these. They are intricately layered with pen scribbling, including Arabic text, children’s drawings (apparently Block’s own children),  cartoonish noodling, and layers of expressionist dribbling. I looked closely for quasi-ironic references that usually accompany text in artwork. Nope. The closest I came was on the third panel, a  tiny scribbled pen-and-ink equation, buried under layers of paint: Moose = Bullwinkle. But even the handwriting seems painstakingly applied.

The panels, actually, wouldn’t look bad in a living room, but that’s not what they are about. It’s all about process: what must have been a whopping, frustrating, painstaking, and revelatory assembly of memories, scribbles, mystical texts, and nightmares.

I started  looking around for the artist, expecting to find a chainsmoking wide-eyed mystic in the corner clutching a bottle of vodka. That’s not what I found. Tom Block is a family man, living in DC,  with a firm handshake, a Long Island accent (at least that’s what I heard), and a sense of humor.

Had he seen Red, the Broadway hit about Rothko? I asked. “Yeah,” he said, “But Rothko shot himself.” Isn’t that what abstract expressionist painters are supposed to do? He acknowledged that, yes, it might help sales. But he just doesn’t look the part.

As the paintings indicated, there’s a lot going on beneath the surface of this particular artist. And White Noise is, unabashedly, an attempt to explore it. With director Roselie Vasquez-Yetter, he’s used this work to painstakingly explore his own thought process, as he works in the lonely world between spiritual, theoretical, and artistic.  The end result isn’t easy to classify as entertainment. AndWhite Noise is clearly Block’s first play: he isn’t nearly as comfortable with the possibilities of the stage as he is with the canvas. But in concert with his works, it’s an odd and even courageous attempt by an artist to get under his own skin. In concert with his work, it’s a fascinating experience.

As far as the plot goes, my expectations were proven false. I was waiting for an abstract, movement-oriented exploration of motifs, but White Noise is almost drawing room drama. An African American artist (Tim) travels to Detroit for an exhibit, sponsored by a couple, Joan (Gigi Buscaglio) and Dick (Josh Canary). This is an aging, bickering couple, wealthy (thanks to Northrop Grumman), stingy, and tormented.

Tim (Jeff Kirkman III) arrives in the midst of a heated squabble. Little is said about his art, but what follows is an extended discussion of his struggle, his own chosen Muse, Simon Weil (portrayed beautifully by actor and dancer Lauren Kieler), and spiritual self-realization. If that sounds dry, it’s not: as the play progresses, it disintegrates into a mélange of Jungian motifs, sexual hang-ups, racial prejudices and other demons of the modern age. Sally (magnetically played by Tina Thomas) seems to be at the core of the explosion: an aging rape victim who, inexplicably, has decided to host him for his visit.

Like Block’s paintings, it’s a crazy mélange of process and imagination. The actors do an admirable job – Kirkman, in particular, had the unenviable task of filling in at the last moment and playing the central role. One gets the impression that a few more weeks would have helped the actors orient themselves, but, even so, the production is a fascinating peek at the side most artists don’t want us to see: the creation (and deconstruction) of the persona. Tim arrives as a self-made guru of eastern wisdom; by the end of the play, he’s a hypocritical addict of Internet Porn.

Desiree Miller, playing her original score: White Noise

If the play itself is cerebral, the musical score, composed and performed by cellist Desiree Miller, offers a perfect background. Modern, expressionist, and dramatically expressive, it seems to bore further into the mind of the artist than even the script does.

Time and space requires that I stop here, but believe me, there’s a lot going on in this 80 minute production. It’s not strictly a night at the theatre, though. It’s a night in the gallery, a fascinating and rewarding look at the multiple dimensions of faith, theory, and inspiration that go into Block’s work.

White Noise closes Sunday, June 10, 2012. There are three performances left: at 8 on Saturday, and on Sunday at 2 and 7 pm. One word of advice: arrive early to give yourself at least a half hour to look at the two sprawling, hypnotic murals that form the backdrop of the play. And bring a magnifying glass.

Performed at The Fridge, 516 1/2 8th Street, SE, Washington, DC.
 

 

June 8, 2012

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Selected for Info Ex Information Exchange with visiting curator Meiya Cheng

I am one of six local artists that visiting curator Meiya Chang selected  to meet with at the Washington Project for the Arts.  Ms. Chang is an independent curator and cultural organizer based in Taipei. She previously worked at the Museum of Contemporary Art,Taipei. 

May 22, 2012

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Tom Block: An Activist Artist Who Infiltrates and Inspires

 

by Ben Spielberg

While artists do not change the world by merely raising awareness of a social issue, their activist art can mobilize people and resources around a cause.Tom Block, a witty and eloquent artist and writer based in Silver Spring, Maryland, revealed this philosophy to a mixed-faith crowd at the Mishin Fine Arts Gallery in San Francisco from May 4 to May 6. Block uses both his book (Shalom/Salaam: A Story of a Mystical Fraternity) and his artwork to spark conversations between people of various backgrounds interested in “infiltrating and taking over ‘the system.’”

The first ever Amnesty International Human Rights festival, produced by Block in 2010, showcased many of his paintings and furthered several goals of activist art. Congressional sponsors of the festival included Congressmen John Kerry, Bernie Sanders, Olympia Snowe, and Chris Van Hollen, names which helped “inject the work into the worlds of social and political leaders.” More than thirty-five exhibits appeared throughout the US, Canada, and Europe. Dozens of newspaper articles, radio, and television interviews spawned by the festival drastically increased media awareness of the plight of political prisoners like Jose Gallardo, a brigadier general in the Mexican army who spent nine years in jail for publishing an academic paper that exposed the army’s human rights abuses. The festival also helped bring together more than a dozen NGO’s and art sales raised more than $15,000 for Amnesty International.

Another Block venture, The Iraq History Project Art Festival at DePaul University in 2010, “gathered and analyzed first-person narratives of severe human rights violations committed under the government of the Ba’ath Party and Saddam Hussein (1968-2003) and by a variety of groups after the U.S.-led invasion (2003-2008).” Not only did the project offer valuable perspective on the ongoing human rights abuses in Iraq, but it also demonstrated the power of uniting lecturers, filmmakers, playwrights, photographers, and painters within the activist art framework.

Block’s other art projects have similarly identified areas of social need, created awareness, and brought like-minded activists into contact with one another. His first showing of the Human Rights Painting Project in 2002 convened William Schulz and John Sweeney, then heads of Amnesty International and the AFL-CIO, respectively. Though the two men were certainly aware of each other before the show, Block provided the space for their introduction and laid the groundwork for the significant collaboration between the two organizations in the years since. Block’s Cousins Public Art Project, installed in Tempe, Arizona bus shelters in 2005-2006 and in Silver Spring in 2007, co-opts advertising space with inspirational messages about “peace and acceptance” from the likes of Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr. This project, as Block puts it, “[sells] wisdom instead of toothpaste or a newfangled type of undergarment” and uses the public space it occupies to remind potential enemies of their shared vision for humanity.

Shalom/Salaam shares the purpose of bringing rival groups together non-politically, thus providing an appropriate complement to Block’s artwork. Because academics fear the political backlash of describing the “undeniable interrelationship between Judaism and Islam,” Block comprehensively documents a long history of the reciprocal influences of Muslim and Jewish thinking. Moses Maimonides, for example, one of Judaism’s most esteemed scholars, drew most of his inspiration from Sufi sources like Ibn Sina and al-Ghazali. Sufi mystic Jalal al-Din Rumi also helped influence ideas in the Baal Shem Tov and Hasidism. Block travels widely to present the book at mosques, synagogues, and college campuses to highlight the similarities in both religions’ histories and the connection with today’s conflicts between the two. As Block puts it:

This tale of mystical fraternity is important not only for its historical significance, but also for the relevance it has to the contemporary situation between Jews and Muslims.Looking at today’s news, it is easy to believe that Judaism and Islam never enjoyed a period of mutual enrichment, a time of peace and reciprocal respect. Hatred runs so deep and the relationship is so combustible, it is hard to imagine that these pervasive attitudes cannot be traced back to the founding of Islam (c. 630). In this climate, positive truths such as the one outlined in this book are overlooked and even denied.This bookis offered as part of the dialogue of peace. Though clearly controversial, Shalom/Salaam represents a reality ofshared roots that we can no longer afford to ignore.

Neither the book nor Block’s artwork can, nor is intended to, save the world, but their targeted approach to specific social goals makes them quintessential activist art.

May 15, 2012

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The heart in art Artists express their desire for harmony in 'Shalom/Salaam'

​Article in the San Francisco Bay Guardian about my show at the Mishin Gallery (May 15, 2012).

by Renee Frojo

As the old saying goes, a picture can be worth a thousand words. But a local gallery has united twoseparate artists stemming from Jewish and Islamic backgrounds to convey only one: peace.

In "Shalom/Salaam," a joint exhibit running through May 26 at the Mishin Fine Arts gallery, self-proclaimed activist artist Tom Block and Afghan refugee Shokoor Khusrawy demonstrate that art can be more than a commodity, and rather a tool to dismantle cultural barriers and inspire change.

Although very distinct in their approaches, both artists hope their paintings will help foster a shared emotional experience among viewers that will ultimately lead to understanding across different peoples and beliefs.

Growing up in war-torn Afghanistan, Khusrawy's childhood was marred by violence and destruction. Art supplies were costly and difficult to find, and a bad hip injury confined him to paint on the ground. Yet as bombs rained down outside his window, his desire to create beautiful images remained strong.

From a bustling street market scene to a shepherd herding his goats in the countryside, Khusrawy's soft, impressionist-style paintings offer an insider's view into everyday life of a country that usually evokes images of conflict and hardship.

"He shows the hope and beauty that can be found in the world — not the destruction," says gallery owner Larisa Mishina. "He expresses a desire to live in peace."

Block's work, on the other hand, aims to ignite that desire in others. In modern portraits made of acrylic, ink, and collage on canvas, Block depicts some of the most influential mystics of medieval times — from both Jewish and Islamic traditions — that have inspired and borrowed from each other throughout the ages.

Among Block's "Shalom/Salaam" pieces are an interpretation of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, a Sufi whose work was found quoted repeatedly in Jewish writings; it sits alongside a painting of Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the founder of Hasidism, whose practice was heavily influenced by Sufi doctrine.

Through his portraits, and an accompanying book, Block aims to tell a positive story in a narrative that is almost entirely negative, and reveal that at the core, these ancient, warring religions are very similar. "I want people to see timeless ideas in a fresh way in the hopes that there will be a change in the heart of viewers," Block explains.

Accordingly, much of Block's work goes beyond the gallery. By using art projects to bring awareness of global and local issues, Block has been able to raise money for nonprofit organizations and led several events, such as the first ever Amnesty International Human Rights Art Festival, which brought together 400 artist from around the world and got the attention of several hundred more. A collection of his other work is also on display at the Mishin Gallery in "Working toward Beauty."

The exhibits are Block's first in a commercial gallery and Khusrawy's first in the US. Both artists have only been able to present at universities, libraries, and nonprofit organizations. "Galleries have always told me to leave my ideas at the door," Block says.

But the exhibits are also a first for Mishin Fine Arts, which boasts a collection of 30 contemporary artists from all over the world, including Italy, Spain, and Russia. Although the artists in the gallery's existing collection all have "profound messages," Mishina says Block and Khusrawy's exhibits are her first real step toward creating a space for more meaningful art.

"They are both raw talents, they are very sincere in what they do, and people feel it," Mishina notes. "This brings true value to the gallery, which we want to share with art collectors."

Block hopes the exhibits will open the eyes of art collectors to new, profound ideas of art and what it can do. "There's a whole movement just waiting to be galvanized," he says. *

March 18, 2012

The Fool Returns

My novel, The Fool Returns, has been published this month in Turkey, by the same publisher (Bilim + Gonul, Istanbul) who translated and published my non-fiction novel Shalom/Salaam: A Story of a Mystical Fraternity.

Bill is a 35-year old bartender living with his mother in New York. He is alone on the subway late one night when a man crashes onto the empty train, runs through the cars and drops an odd card in Bill's lap. After he does so, two other men who are following him catch the stranger a few cars along, shooting him dead and then exiting the train. They do not see Bill receive the card.

This card opens up an unknown world of his family's past, and the Covenant. His parents were not Communists, as they had claimed, but hidden Jews, members of the Dworin Clan.  Dating to 1492 and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, theCovenant was a centuries' long quest set up by medieval Jewish-Sufis (Jewish mystics who fused Jewish and Islamic mysticism) to repair the original Biblical Abrahamic breach, as represented in the story of Isaac and Ishmael (Genesis 17).

Hundreds of descendents of the Dworin clan, hidden Jews that had dispersed first from Spain to Dworin Poland, and then around the world, had been involved over the centuries.  Even Columbus had taken some of the cards with him across theocean as he, too, was a crypto-Jew and member of the secretive sect.  Bill has received the last of the 40 cards: the Fool. Bill travels a meandering path from New York to Poughkeepsie, to western Spain, into hidden tunnels and thro.ugh bone chapels, finally finding himself in a whore house at the end of a dead-end street in the Alfama District of Lisbon.  He ends in a surreal moment, beyond fate, somewhere between free will and destiny. He must make a decision: either arrest time out of fear, and remain forever in an unchanging present, or pass the card along to the very figure that has been pursing him, taking a leap of faith into a world that he can never understand.

December 1, 2011

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"Sufism and Hasidism: Shared Spiritual Tales" published in "Sophia: The Journal of Traditional Studies"

"Sufism and Hasidism: Shared Spiritual Tales," an article tracing specific medieval Islamic teaching tales which were re-told about Jewish spiritual teachers hundreds of years later, was published in "Sophia: The Journal of Traditional Studies."

November 17, 2011

Presentation at the Corcoran Museum, Washington D.C. as part of the "Under the Influence" Program

Gave an illustrated presentation about the influence of Jean-Michel Basquiat on my art at the Corcoran Museum, Washington D.C. as part of the "Under the Influence" program in conjunction with their "30 American Artists" exhibit.

November 2, 2011

Columbian Ambassador to the United States Purchases an Original Work

The Columbian Ambassador to the United States bought a large painting of mine at the Nueva Vida fundraiser at the Columbian Embassy. The painting purchased, "Humility of Acceptance," can be seen here.