This Bitter Earth: Deborah Wasserman at Kuma Lisa

Photo Story
Deborah Wasserman, Rubble, 2021, ink and acrylic on paper, 28″ x35.5″

Rubble, mutated crop fields, floods, scorched earth, and occasional female figures floating or submerged unfold throughout the sixteen landscape paintings in Deborah Wasserman’s current solo show, The Bitter Earth at Kuma Lisa. Though the paintings differ in scale and media—from small acrylic and oil on panels to larger acrylic, oil, and stained clothes on canvas to medium-sized works on paper—they all share the sense of a world where multiple perspectives from different vantage points co-exist. Wasserman’s energetic strokes and searching lines create a rhythmic movement upward, downward, and sideways—reminiscent of the fluidity in Chinese and Japanese calligraphic scroll paintings and the clear, directional lines of a hand-drawn map. These linear dynamos intertwine with a palette of earthy tones, greens, yellows, oranges, blues, reds, and pure blacks, creating multiple vignettes within a layered landscape.

Deborah Wasserman, Migrating Crops, 2020, ink, acrylic, oil, and torn clothes, 60 x70 in.

In Migrating Crops, lines soar, creating a sense of an unraveling plant mutation against a backdrop of blue-grayish air, which suggests smog or an approaching storm. From this dense atmosphere emerges a ghostly woman’s face merging with a vivid green plant stem, creating an eerie fusion of life forms. This amalgamation brings to mind cross-cultural myths that associate women with plants, underscoring fertility, nurturing, and sacrifice themes. The narrative of Persephone, the Greek goddess of agriculture who is bound to the underworld for part of each year and reborn each spring, resonates with this imagery. Similarly, the story of the Corn Mother from Native American mythology—who sacrifices her body to become the first corn plant—parallels the painting’s title. Wasserman’s piece embraces ecofeminism, drawing on indigenous ideas. Her female figure is portrayed as a soul, a ghost, a nurturing maternal spirit—the only presence capable of providing solace to the scorched earth under its murky sky.

Close-up of a painting

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Detail, Deborah Wasserman, Migrating Crops. Photo courtesy of Etty Yaniv

In an essay on Wasserman’s art, Ekin Erkan notes that the painter’s deep connection to the themes of indigeneity and migration stems from her European and Middle Eastern ancestors who migrated to Brazil, where she was born. Raised in Israel and now lives in the USA, her nomadic heritage informs her ongoing search for belonging as she navigates various geographies, cultures, and languages, including Hebrew, Portuguese, and English. Wasserman’s use of torn fabrics from garments—previously worn by her or her children—incorporated into her paintings adds a poignant autobiographical element. These remnants embed memories and physical traces of the body into the canvas. By focusing on the materiality of the canvas, she reflects on the human body’s return to the earth, serving as nourishment.

A painting of a landscape

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Deborah Wasserman, Heroine’s Journey, 2019, ink, acrylic, oil, torn shoelace and clothes on canvas, 48 x 72 in
A painting of a dog lying on a rock

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Deborah Wasserman, Heroine’s Journey, detail. Photo courtesy of Etty Yaniv

In Heroine’s Journey, a fragment of fabric on the right edge descends toward a turquoise pool below, juxtaposing a green streak of paint in motion. The terrain undulates in a way that recalls the curves of a female body, depicting a spectrum of skin colors from dark browns to reds, pinks, and pale olives, interspersed with vegetation, bridges, and pathways. Despite the expansive scope of the image, there is an unmistakable sense of intimacy, inviting us to closely follow this heroine’s intricate path from a zoomed-in perspective.

A painting of a landscape

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Deborah Wasserman, This Bitter Earth, 2023, ink, acrylic, oil, torn shoelace, and clothes on canvas, 48×72 in.

The Bitter Earth zooms out and provides a sweeping panorama, offering a glimpse into our collective state of being on Earth. The water shimmers in dazzling blues and greens, evoking the power of flood, while the hills, painted in rich browns and yellows, seem ablaze. Above, the stormy sky mirrors the turbulent waters below, with bold turquoise hues mingling with menacing bluish clouds. It is a vivid picture of turmoil and destruction. Yet, as Ekin Erkan observes, Wasserman’s vistas give us twofold possibilities: “They simultaneously caution us while also illuminating a world of raw, fertile beginnings.”

All photos courtesy of Max Yawney unless otherwise indicated.

This Bitter Earth: Paintings and Drawings by Deborah Wasserman April 12th – May 4th, 2024 Opening: Friday, April 12th, 6 – 8 PM Kuma Lisa Gallery, 56 Eldridge Street Hours: Thur-Sat 1-6 pm and by appointment