Jac Lahav – on RGB

Artist Jac Lahav in dialogue with NAVA Contemporary about working for over a decade painting portraits of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Jac Lahav, Red Hope, from 48 Jews, oil on canvas, 24×24 in, 2017

The recent death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg shocked us all. Artist Jac Lahav has painted portraits of RBG for over a decade. In this interview with NAVA Contemporary he discusses his thoughts on RBG, iconography, and a way forward during these challenging times.

NAVA: You are a prolific artist. Tell me a bit about your background.

JL: Born in Israel, I moved to the United States while very young and bounced around a lot, from a small island off Puerto Rico to a punk loft in Philadelphia. Finally, in 2002 I found my home in NYC. In 2008 I completed my MFA at Brooklyn College, finding mentors like Vito Acconci, Keith Mayerson, and Archie Rand. In school, I developed the 48 Jews, a series of paintings decrypting what it means to be Jewish today. That series was picked up by the Jewish Museum NY and began my 12-year love affair with the image of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Jac Lahav, Black ruth, oil on panel, 10×14 in, 2018

NAVA: The recent death of RBG was a crushing blow to our culture, our country, and her family. Can you elaborate on what got you interested in her?

JL: In the ’70s, my mother was beginning her law career in Israel. A young professor from Columbia University visited Israel, and the two became friendly. One night the traveling professor came over for dinner, and as my mother worked in the kitchen, our guest held me as a baby. This was my early introduction to RBG and has become a legend in my family. It’s not quite a “claim to fame” but began my affinity to both the woman and the icon.

NAVA: Can you talk about your current work on RBG?

JL: I’ve made a career painting portraits that explore American history and iconography. After my recent show at the Florence Griswold Museum, I drilled down on the story of George Washington. This founding father is rife for critique. I want to criticize the “old white man” while still celebrating our nation’s history. Is this possible?

I created a group of 16 GW paintings that deconstruct the icon; however, something was missing. I kept returning to the term “founding father” and thought of my father, who died when I was young. My father was an invincible superhero during my childhood, yet as I grew up, he became human and fallible. Perhaps parenting can be a model for understanding our own nation’s history? With a studio full of George Washingtons’, things were looking super patriarchal, and I realized what was missing! So I started painting RBG again in earnest. She is my counterpoint to the patriarchy of GW, the new American matriarch.

Jac Lahav, Justice 4 All, oil on canvas, 48×72 in, 2019

NAVA: Let’s take a closer look at RGB in your earlier series, The Great Americans?

JL: The Great Americans is a series of 32 seven-foot tall paintings depicting famous Americans. It discusses issues of celebrity vs. achievement. The series has an elongated RBG portrait that I hang next to a Sandra Day O’Connor painting. O’Connor was the first woman on the supreme court, but because she left the court early and had rather conservative opinions, RBG has become our matriarchal champion. How history is written, changed, and remembered has become a cornerstone of my work.

(Note: This painting Justice, RBG is currently hanging at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London, CT).

Jac Lahav, Justice RBG, from Great Americans, oil on canvas, 32×80 in, 2016

Jac Lahav, GeorgeRuth, oil on canvas, 24×32, 2018

NAVA: Any thoughts on how we can move forward from RBG’s death?

JL: Like you, I’m crushed by the death of RBG and incredibly scared about the future. During the recent March quarantine, I painted this small RBG portrait called “Legend” to summon some positivity and hope. When she died, I immediately wanted to take action. You (NAVA) had the great idea of creating a print of “Legend” and giving all the proceeds to charity. I’m happy that we are donating 100% of the proceeds to Planned Parenthood up until the November Election. It feels like I’m doing something, and this is my silver lining. We have already raised over a thousand dollars for Planned Parenthood, and I think these types of actions are a way forward. Our rights are not set in stone, and we must keep fighting.

Jac Lahav, Legend, print edition 50, 10×12 in, 2020

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