Mexican-Jewish artist Aliza Nisenbaum on her colorful portraits of ‘the other’ in society

(Courtesy of the artist and Art on the Underground, London; Anton Kern Gallery, New York/© Aliza Nisenbaum)

(JTA)— Mexican-Jewish artist Aliza Nisenbaum sees a failure to communicate in the modern world — and her work as a way to counteract the dilemma.

“The problem today is that we are not sitting with real people, face to face, we are shouting to each other on social media,” Nisenbaum says.

She looks to fight this cultural tendency through her paintings, whose intense, sensuous color forces the viewer to inhale the humanity of her subjects.

Influenced by the work of Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and his theory of “the Other,” which is grounded in Jewish ethics of responsibility and humanism, Nisenbaum aims to portray the “back regions” of everyday life — a term coined by the Jewish sociologist Erving Goffman.

Nisenbaum, 42, has explored the idea for years, beginning with a series of intimate portraits of Central American migrants she met while working at a New York City community center in 2013.

For a solo show at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, she painted Latin American seniors at the Tiron Guzman Center and Somali refugees working at the Hope Community Garden. Nisenbaum, who teaches at Columbia University and has a master’s degree from the Art Institute of Chicago, also painted a mural of London Underground workers in Brixton Station.

Most recently, she showed portraits capturing the backstage vibe of a New York salsa dancing group at the Kern Gallery in Manhattan.

The process of painting a portrait live, in front of a subject, is a sort of embodiment of Levinas’ theory and a recognition of the materiality of the body for Nisenbaum.

“I find the process extremely deep,” she said. “Here is a real person with their body, indivisible, sitting in front of you for six hours. It’s very intimate, and you feel responsible for her.”

Here are a few of Nisenbaum’s works — and what she thinks of them: