‘The severed tree of life’
How painter Josh Teplow of Teaneck creates art — and conversation
By the time a viewer gets to see a painting that Josh Teplow of Teaneck has made, it already holds layers of meaning, Mr. Teplow said.
Biographical, philosophical, biological, theological — it’s all there. But the top layer comes from the viewer, who necessarily sees it through a lens as specific as the artist’s.
“There are many reasons why people create art — paintings, sculpture, music, literature, any art,” Mr. Teplow, whose paintings will be on exhibit at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, said. (See box.)
“For me, those reasons are trying to understand myself. The images I create are biographical on some level. They are painterly statements about what I think about nature, its structures, and its patterns, and also about my life as a person. We see meaning outside of human endeavor. I try to take all these generalized ideas and translate them into lines and color fills.
“The paintings are a metaphor for a life journey.”
They are about him, they are about the world around him, and they are about everyone else, Mr. Teplow said.
Because he is deeply Jewish, so are they.
“I have used the tree of life as something very literal,” he said. “You can see a chronology of a person’s life in the trunk and branches and leaves.” So his art is “kind of like me doing a check-up on myself, seeing where I am, how do I feel.” But it’s not solipsistic, or at least not uniquely so, he added. “There has to be a kind of self-involvement with everyone’s art. You have to get down to critical aspects of what is important to you, how you engage with society, what ideas mean the most to you. What ideas define your life? What ideas create direction?”
The point is to “encourage conversation,” Mr. Teplow said. “There are lots of people who are creating art, and that means there are more, bigger, better conversations. To me, what’s most important is that art ultimately is the engagement between the artist and the audience. You want it to be as human as possible. And that’s a little ironic given that right now we are creating systems that ape human behavior.”
He’s talking about artificial intelligence bots that create art, as well as chat bots that simulate conversation between human beings, and the new bots, like ChatGPT, that produce startlingly convincing essays and stories. “So we have to dig deep in terms of what we do as human beings,” Mr. Teplow said. “That becomes more and more important as our systems take on human forms.
“Artificial intelligence is really about algorithms. It’s a recipe for what the program is trained to think that human beings are supposed to be.
“But the extraordinary miracle of human beings is that every single one of us is unique. Every single one of us has a legacy that is different from every other person’s. Computers, no matter how sophisticated their programming might be, can only create something that approaches a generalized view of a human being. But as human beings, we really want to engage with ourselves, pull out our specific stories, and give them over to other people.
“That is still our lingua franca,” our shared language. “The understanding of that is very human, and I don’t believe that computers are going to be able to engage in that specific way, because all they can do is repeat what’s thrown at them.”
That repetition can be very well-disguised, because the programming is very sophisticated and the people producing it often are brilliant, but at base, it’s regurgitation, not creation.
The attribute that differentiates human-produced art from AI-made pieces is depth, Mr. Teplow said. “When somebody creates something, whether it is a book or music or art, there should be enough depth in it so that people don’t have to jump to a conclusion, then close the package and move on.
“You want it to be open-ended.” Audiences should continue to engage; their senses should continue to tingle. “I want to dig deep. I want to see how plants grow, and how that connects with my life. I try to make it structural and messy, because life has that complexity.”
That’s why his art is not realistic, Mr. Teplow said. “I find that makes it more human. I may be able to create a painting that is hyper-realistic, but who cares about that? We have photography. Why should I prove that I can create something that’s already been done — and done better — by technology?”
Mr. Teplow has been painting — and thinking about the ideas behind his painting — for a long time, he said. He’s from suburban Boston and went to the Maimonides School in Brookline; Maimonides is a well-known, highly respected modern Orthodox yeshiva. “I was very blessed to go there,” he said. He started drawing in high school. Next, he went to Yeshiva University, where he continued to study drawing. “I really fell in love with it,” he said. After he graduated from YU, he earned a master’s degree in fine art at NYU, focusing on art created since 1945.
But it’s hard to earn a living as an artist. Mr. Teplow soon got married — his wife, Rebecca Teplow, is a composer who specializes in liturgical music, a singer, and a teacher, and they have three grown children — and “I realized that the painting thing wasn’t really working,” he said. “So I had 9-to-5 jobs, and eventually I went into graphic design” — a logical and often gratifying move for a very visual person — “and then I reinvented myself as a user-experience designer,” he said. “That means that I created applications for users, and then interviewed the users to make sure that the design is what they expected.
“Testing your product is the most important part. The closer you are with users, the better off you are. It is amazing how much stuff is developed without any communication with the customers — and then the developers wonder why they are having so many problems.
“I love connecting with people.”
That is an insight, both about himself and about the nature of human creation— that Mr. Teplow took with his art.
Now that his children are grown and his responsibilities changed, “I reached a stage in my life when I said ‘I’ve done the good work of creating a family, and now I have to get back to this other love, of trying to figure out who I am.
“I think that search has meaning throughout your life, but it takes on even more meaning when you get older. You want to sum things up. You want to take away all the dross, everything that is not really important.
“I felt like my painting is a way of filtering out what is unimportant. It’s a kind of mindfulness. It’s a kind of tefilla” — of prayer — “that allows me to engage with the most important things and distill them.”
That’s why Mr. Teplow ensures that his art is not obvious. “It’s important that the viewer not see everything,” he said. “They look at it and maybe see things about themselves. They might see something that is interesting to them about the way it’s painted, or an idea is articulated.
“My paintings are conversation pieces. They are ways of inspiring people to look at themselves.”
Meanwhile, “for me, when I paint, I am having a conversation with myself,” he continued. “Everything we do as creative human beings we do to inspire ourselves and the people around us.”
Beauty itself is morally neutral, he said. Art can be well-executed but done with evil intent; look at Nazi paintings, which are horrible, “but they knew how to do it well, if you like that kind of stuff. You have people who are really righteous painters, and people who are sucked into some awful machine. They’re all creating art.” So beauty can be misleading.
But conversations about art are invigorating and inherently creative.
Mr. Teplow talked about a theory that the prominent midcentury art critic Harold Rosenberg had about why “there is such a vehement anti-image position in early Jewish literature, starting with the Torah.
“His claim was that because the world itself is such a miracle, so full of creation, that the early Jews thought that if the whole world is wonderful and magical art, then how can we add to it? The commandment is not to create graven images. Rosenberg claimed that Jews were the first to create the idea of Dadaism, where the graven image is not art, but everything else in the world is.
“These are the kinds of conversations I like to have.”
Who: Josh Teplow of Teaneck
What: Is showing his art in “The Severed Tree of Life”
Where: At the Waltuch Gallery at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly
When: The show will run from January 2 to January 28; check the JCC for hours
How: For more information, go to jccotp.org, or call the JCC at (201) 569-7900. Learn more about Josh Teplow and his art at www.joshteplowart.com