Braided Bestiary: The Challah Show
Curated by Libby Werbel
NOON Projects is honored to present “Braided Bestiary: The Challah Show”, a solo exhibition of works by Jenna Thornhill, curated by Libby Werbel.
Popularized in the Middle Ages, a bestiary is a compendium of beasts –both real and mythical– elaborately and exhaustively cataloged in a series of illustrated volumes. The drawings and descriptions of each animal were often accompanied by an allegory of some kind, supporting the belief that every living thing (and sometimes even a rock) has its own special meaning.
For her first solo show in her native Los Angeles, Jenna Thornhill offers her own unique version of a bestiary, exhibiting sculptures made entirely of challah bread that have each been formed and baked as an effigy to her life here in Southern California. These sculptures reflect the artist’s research of the flora and fauna of the local landscape, the history of the San Pedro region where she currently resides, and her burgeoning interest in ornithology. Often appearing rough or cartoonish at first glance, each work slowly reveals a skilled hand and a fecund imagination.
Much like clay, bread dough is famously (and at times frustratingly) malleable, only revealing its final incarnation in the baking process, rising and changing to resemble something new when it finally emerges. Thornhill plays with this process of uncertainty; the form expanding and growing from yeast, developing a terminal product made even more unpredictable by a final collaboration with her kitchen oven. Each work is ritualistically crafted on Shabbat, the Friday evening dinner symbolizing the beginning of the traditional Jewish day of rest. The end result is either eaten that night, or if deemed worthy by the artist, it is preserved in lacquer and saved as a wall-mountable sculpture. Both of these are considered successful outcomes.
Thornhill’s choice to work specifically with challah can also be interpreted as a way to modernize and subvert her role as a Jewish woman, tying a line to an ancestral tradition of baking this particular weekly bread, while also introducing her own sense of humor and contemporary reference into the process. Sealed, hardened, and hanging on the wall, these entombed bread sculptures become a marker of time’s passage and an archive of the idiosyncratic themes that piqued Thorhill’s interest that particular week. Over years of Shabbats, the dough has taken the shape of favorite pets, Star Trek the Next Generation characters, and the overgrown wild Merino sheep popularized on social media for being “too fluffy to be killed.” In the piece Three Double-Crested Cormorants she recreates a scene from a Youtube video wherein a rescued baby cormorant is resting on the body of a wooden sculpture resembling a parent bird, while feeding from a human hand wearing a bird puppet. The scene very simply captures a person performing a mitzvah for a needy baby bird. Through this tiny gesture, Thornhill seizes on both the grand potential of humanity’s ability for care, and the truly bizarre nature of how that care sometimes manifests.
Both spiritual and playful, these pieces are deeply representational of one artist’s experience, while also serving as an offering of hospitality at the shared table of our natural world. It is a personal allegory told through “beasts”, and a bridge from tradition to a broader cultural understanding of a life lived on the edge of Los Angeles in 2023.