“Praise New York,” an exhibit by Karl Haendel March 10–April 16 at the Mitchell-Innes & Nash gallery on West 26th Street, honors New York City religious leaders.
What is unique about the portraits in this exhibit is that the subjects are identified not by their faces but by large-scale drawings of their hands.
Haendel wanted to spotlight these unsung heroes who provided food, shelter, wisdom and hope during the pandemic, and drew attention to the climate crisis, helped heal racial injustice and quelled civil unrest.
Haendel, a Los Angeles-based artist born in New York City, spent the last two years creating these works of art.
“It’s a novel way to make a portrait, allowing people to express themselves with gesture and nuance,” Haendel says in a press release on the exhibit, “but free from the tropes and standards of beauty associated with traditional representational portraiture, which generally focuses on the face.”
“In a time of pandemic when touching isn’t allowed, representing hands became only more interesting to me. And the hands of religious leaders, as they pray or perform rituals, are filled with potential healing and spiritual resonance further compelling me to the project in a time when faith is in short supply.”
Each hand is drawn meticulously in pencil on paper. Haendel met with his subjects in their house of worship—whether a church in Chelsea, a mosque in Harlem, a synagogue in Brooklyn, a Hindu temple in Flushing or a Buddhist meditation center in Staten Island. The artist spoke with the leaders about their faith and their congregations, including their commitment to interfaith dialogue and tolerance.
After photographing the leaders’ hands, Haendel digitally manipulated them in his studio, creating compositions that subtly echo hand gestures that are a staple of religious imagery in art throughout history. The artist then used the digital works as a guide for creating his immense pencil drawings.
“As much as Praise New York is a portrait of contemporary faith it is just as much a portrait of New York City itself,” Haendel says. “Although the city is often thought of as secular, in truth it is home to numerous religious communities and, according to demographers, would be considered fairly religious. We all regularly walk by storefront mosques and basement temples, often without notice.”
Haendel chose faith leaders of houses of worship in each of the five boroughs of New York to show that “religion is all around us if we only take the time to look…. And look we must as each subjects’ hands are drawn nearly 9 feet tall, towering over the viewer as an embodied presence.”
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