The girls and women in Hannah Lupton Reinhard’s paintings are hard to pin down. Set in bucolic, pastoral scenes, their flowing dresses and bare feet might place them at a summer music festival, though their headscarves are a throwback to the babushkas of Eastern Europe shtetls. Some unselfconsciously bear their breasts while holding elements of Jewish ritual such as candles and wine vessels in hands adorned with long, fake nails. The artist renders bodily forms with a sculptural solidity reminiscent of Renaissance Old Masters, painstakingly formed with thin layers of luminous oil paint. She updates this foundation with a hyper-saturated color scheme recalling the neon palette of Lisa Frank, and gaudy groupings of rhinestones (a nod to her grandmother, a Swarovski jeweler who would sell her hand-beaded creations to Saks Fifth Avenue). With these layered contradictions, Lupton Reinhard presents a vision of Jewish femininity that is both progressive and rooted in tradition, an unapologetic mixture of sacred and profane.
Lupton Reinhard grew up in a Conservative Jewish (“conservative” refers to a religious movement, not a political philosophy) household in Orange County, the daughter of two university professors. She was religiously observant, kept kosher, with separate dishes for meat and dairy (as she still does), and attended a Jewish day school. “I grew up thinking that every other person in the world was Jewish,” she told Hyperallergic on a Zoom call from an artist’s residency in New York City. “I lived in a bubble.”
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Her bubble burst when she transferred to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and had trouble locating herself in a Jewish community. “Obviously there were Jews at RISD but I couldn’t find them … That’s when I felt really lost.”
She decided to make that community herself and began hosting inclusive Friday night Shabbat dinners at her house, composed of Jews and non-Jews alike. “Some of them had never met a Jew before me,” she said of her guests, but before long “everyone knew the blessings for the candles, the wine, the bread.”
Lupton Reinhard describes late evenings of youthful exuberance, as opposed to solemn expressions of piety. “They became kind of iconic shabbat parties. I was adapting the religion to my life, not adapting my life to the religion.”
The title of her recent show at Fredericks & Freiser in New York City, Shekinah, Shiksas, And Other Nice Jewish Girls captures this inclusive spirit, “Shekinah” being the Hebrew word for a dwelling where God resides, and “Shiksa” being the Yiddish word for a non-Jewish woman, here taking on a playful as opposed to derogatory tone.
At around the same time, she began making her first Jewish-themed paintings, such as a Passover scene with cartoonish depictions of her parents and siblings that bore the influence of Nicole Eisenman. A disappointing critique followed where her classmates were silent, presumably afraid of offending with their comments. “No one wanted to say anything about it. There was a lot of fear,” she recalls. She then turned to making humorous paintings critiquing Jewish culture with stock images pulled from the internet, avoiding the intimacy of her first efforts.
When the COVID-19 pandemic started, Reinhard returned to Orange County and was forced to reevaluate her practice. Isolated at her family home, she began to make small, intimate portraits of her family and friends, awash in California light. “I felt like I didn’t have to prove anything to anyone anymore.”
These paintings collapse time, merging the contemporary and the Biblical, placing specific people into ancient narratives. “They’re definitely portraits, but I see them as putting on a costume, embodying a persona, playing a role,” she said of her subjects. “You still come to it with your history and experiences, but you’re playing a character.”
Old Testament stories figure in most of the paintings in both her Fredericks & Freiser show and her first solo show Beshert: Beholden at Rusha & Co. in Los Angeles last year, but are often hidden or subtly inferred, as with two paintings of Lot’s Daughters from the Biblical story. Monumental female figures take up most of each canvas, threatening to break their frames should they stand up from their crouching positions. One holds a cheap, plastic lighter which she has just used to light a candle, while the other holds a jug from which spills a trickle of red wine, its spigot suggestively placed at crotch-level. Their eyes each meet the viewer’s gaze defiantly. In the background, we see the flaming cities of Sodom & Gomorrah from which they have just fled.
As the Biblical story goes, Lot’s daughters, believing they are the only people left on earth, get their father drunk and sleep with him to save humanity. Lupton Reinhard’s version omits the patriarch, shifting the focus to the young female protagonists. “I was so scared of that story growing up, I wanted to recontextualize it,” she said. “I imagined it as the first Shabbat, [a chance to] rebuild the world … I also love the idea that because their hometown burned down, they thought the world ended. That’s what it feels like to be a teenager. Everything is so dramatic. There’s something special about that kind of intensity, and that kind of isolation from the rest of the world.”
“Wrapping You Around Me” (2023) depicts a girl wrapping a bright orange ribbon around her arm as bedazzled bees buzz around her head. Jewish viewers might recognize the ribbon as a stand-in for tefillin, small boxes containing a scroll with Torah verses that observant Jews secure to their arms and head with leather straps during morning prayers. In Orthodox communities, only men are permitted to wear tefillin, lending Lupton Reinhard’s image a subversive edge.
Outdated assumptions about what makes a “good Jew” are at the heart of what Lupton Reinhard’s paintings challenge, positing new models for a contemporary feminist tradition. During a recent studio visit, a collector asked the artist why she, as a Jew, would be covered in tattoos, to which the artist answered, “Because I present myself a certain way, there’s all these judgments and ways people expect you to behave and feel and dress. Those are things the paintings are definitely grappling with because that’s the stuff I deal with on a daily basis.”