Intricate Affinities: Recollections of Western Tradition in Local Contemporary Art
Curator: Smadar Sheffi
Myriads of threads connect the works comprising “Intricate Affinities” to the past, to multiple pasts, to various traditions in Western art. The web of affinities between past and present in local painting, as reflected in the current exhibition, challenges our idea of the contemporary, exploring cultural, temporal, and spatial perceptions in relation to aesthetic and conceptual arrays in the present.
The question of temporality—an entity that changes states of aggregation— solidifying as consciousness, fluid as memory—is a pivotal axis in the show. Painting is a plausible platform for indicating ambiguities toward the present. Historical allusions are used as a means of distancing, introducing multiple perspectives. The exhibition examines the way in which the use of representation matrices from diverse Western traditions has transformed, whether via thematic or formal shift, or by draining its original iconography.
The show focuses on the pictorial quality—the elusive essence of the works as an object, as material. The paintings are statements, and at the same time—arenas of study and research; a saturated painterly act unfolding in the present, which elicits social, existential, religious, and intra-artistic questions.
Some of the works surrender associations to Christian art, others conduct an ambivalent dialogue with early 19th-century Romanticism and mid-20th-century Abstract Expressionism. Some juxtapose abstract painting with still life in the tradition of Spanish Baroque, others embed the memory of Renaissance utopias.
Vis-à-vis the surge of images increasingly surrounding us, the exhibition wishes to contribute to reconsideration of the painterly medium. The paintings are read as objects in the world, leading to contemplation of the nature of representation and the very ability to observe.
Smadar Sheffi, Ph.D.
Amir Shefet’s series The Opposition addresses the essence of painting via three entities: still life ostensibly rendered from observation, abstract painting, and a combination of still life and abstraction as a general comment on painterly language. The Opposition no. 4 portrays an almost three-dimensional bunch of grapes, which evokes Pliny the Elder’s tale about a contest between two artists in the 4th century BCE: Zeuxis painted grapes so lifelike, that birds tried to peck at them; Parrhasius painted a drawn curtain and won the contest, when Zeuxis tried to open it to reveal the picture behind it. The value of art as an imitation of nature was a bone of contention between Plato, who regarded art as a deceiving illusion, an obstacle on man’s path to the world of ideas, and Aristotle, for whom imitation of nature was a way of studying the world. Shefet explores this question from a post-photography perspective. His paintings delineate a sphere of balance between the commitment to mimesis of objects and the presentation of an enunciation uncommitted to form or pattern external to it.
The imagery in Gili Lavy’s La Mère Divine (The Divine Mother) oscillates between the familiar and the foreign, between that which is decoded via prevalent iconographic forms and that which remains undeciphered. Belief, mortality, and identity are Lavy’s three objects of research. She employs quintessential Christian formations and icons: the late-19th century French Catholic Ratisbonne Monastery in Jerusalem; the monastic hierarchy (Mother Superior and nuns), and the prayer order. She decontextualizes them by inventing a religion whereby a daughter worships her late mother, who transforms into a saint posthumously. Thus, by distorting and shifting familiar forms Lavy delves into psychological questions pertaining to intergenerational relationship, the dangerous transition from love to adoration, and from freedom to docility. The visual aspect is refined, while each frame emphasizes the religious rigor, as in Ingmar Bergman’s film Fanny and Alexander or Theo Angelopoulos’s The Beekeeper. By maintaining a resemblance to a familiar system of worship, Lavy casts doubt, creating a place in which to contemplate “truth” and authenticity.
In the last decade Ilana Hamawi has been working in charcoal, graphite, and eraser on paper. She paints clouds, and occasionally landscapes ranging between black, white, and grayscale. The works are made after color photographs she takes, from which she chooses details, moments, movement. Clouds are the place which humanity imagined to be the abode of the deities. Myths have been tied to this most widely observed natural phenomenon, pertaining to that which is invisible and uncontrollable. In art, clouds imply the realms of the sublime, that which remains impenetrable to viewers. Hamawi’s clouds celebrate the memory of Titian’s, Caspar David Friedrich’s, and Turner’s clouds. At the same time, they are here-and-now—one of the ways in which urban man may connect to nature. Clouds are forms that evade definition, spaces of refuge which undermine our perception of time: forever changing, forever present.
Meydad Eliyahu’s mural Public Works, Jerusalem Hills (“Planters’ Dance” in Hebrew) encapsulates the memory of ecclesiastic frescoes, as well as that of 20th century public murals, especially by socialist artists who exalted the working classes. In local art history, frescoes and murals remained a secondary medium, a stepson in the Israeli canon. Murals by Yohanan Simon, Shalom Sebba, Avraham Ofek, and others garnered limited recognition. Eliyahu employs fresco to shed light on a chapter which has not become fixed in the Israeli ethos: the inception of the immigrant moshavim (agricultural settlements) in the 1950s, whose construction was often imposed on the settlers. Eliyahu refers to the traumatic experience of Malabar (Cochin) Jews in Moshav Mesilat Zion, where his parents reside. Large fresco fragments reveal vanquished-indrawn figures, mostly men, within a deconstructed, wounded landscape. The Hebrew title, which conveys naiveté alongside a hint of ritualism, was extracted from a 1953 song by Yoel Eliezer Shatil, praising the national forestation project. For the Mesilat Zion settlers, public works were the almost exclusive source of livelihood possible at the time. Eliyahu examines the repressed past at the Petach Tikva Museum of Art, in the “Mother of Settlements,” the very heart of the Israeli ethos. The fact that the work will be disassembled when the exhibition terminates pulsates in its consciousness.
Flow continues Mosh Kashi’s journey into the sublime, underway for over two decades. A prevalent term in 20th century artistic discourse, the sublime elicits denotations pertaining to religious sensibilities, nature, and introspection. The work is a saturated space, embracing and absorbing. In the purple somber realms, in the mists of encounter with the illuminated darkness at the bottom of the painting, the viewer’s gaze is turned inward, into a core of silence. The sublime becomes current, present. The work shares sensitivities with sculptural spaces, specifically Anish Kapoor’s sculptures which capture infinity and Richard Serra’s obstructing-inviting rusty steel surfaces. Flow spawns an acute moment in the present, a space where the viewer may linger. The memory of early 19th-century Romantic German painting, embedded in the works of both Kapoor and Serra, is also discernible in Kashi’s: a painting in which the horizon, the boundary of the visible, becomes a coveted destination, the heart of the painting.
The initial, amiable impression made by Nadav Naor’s puffed-cheek figures cracks as one reveals that it is a recurring face. The repetition violates the portrait’s customary reading as unique, altering the discussion of affiliation and individualism, much like the photographic work of Cindy Sherman and Yasumasa Morimura. Naor’s figures are disconcerting in their ambivalence, as if they assume a hidden mask. Their age, and often their gender, remain obscure. Even when endowed with attributes such as a mustache or breasts, they are perceived as an easily-removable costume. Their gaze is glassy yet direct. The frontality is festive as in portraits of nobility or saints, but the figures’ appearance conveys discomfort, as if unaccustomed to being subject to observation. One is reminded of Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, a novel about a portrait that ages and grows ugly instead of its subject, and when the latter dies, it reverts to being the portrait of a young man. In Naor’s painting, the temporal resilience and the ostensibly tranquil portraits imply interruption of the natural order of time.
As in a typical triptych, whose three panels symbolize the Holy Trinity, Sasha Okun masterfully depicts man not as awaiting salvation, but as beyond despair. Verses from the books of Job and Ecclesiastes* are cited above the figures’ heads, alluding to the Renaissance tradition of the use of script, while referring to man’s carnality and mortality, and the discrepancy between intent and realization. In the side panels, where saints were traditionally portrayed, Okun poses coarse, wretched figures, with a decapitated chicken sold in discount supermarkets, rather than a dove as an embodiment of the Holy Spirit, overhead. The wretchedness of both figures and meat leaves no room for consolation. The chicken is grafted onto the head of a figure instead of a halo of sanctity, or held in the arms of another in a posture reminiscent of the Madonna and Child. Rather than a revered figure or an exalting scene, the central panel portrays a figure crying at an indifferent infinity. Each of the figures could have been Hanoch Levin’s pathetic Yona Popukh (in The Labor of Life), who sums up his everso- precious ignoble life as follows:
“First I ate my mother’s meatloaf, / then I ate my wife’s meatloaf, / a few more meatloaves I’ll eat in the hospital, / and then—lie still, rest— / at last, no more meatloaf. / That’s the chronicles of Yona Popukh.”
* “Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7);
“Who hath put wisdom in the inward parts? or who hath given understanding to the heart?” (Job 38:36);
“it is good and comely for one to eat and to drink, and to enjoy the good of all his labour that he taketh under the sun all the days of his life” (Eccles 5:18).
Simon Adjiashvili’s interiors have a fleeting quality, as if capturing the ephemeral. What appears at first sight as painting from observation, transpires as an imaginary place where abstract principles—an intricate array of light and space—are built around scaffoldings which are familiar forms: a chair, an unkempt bed sheet, a mirror. The occurrence, the movement in the painting, is that of light bathing the floor as if it were a real substance. Light stands like a pillar of cloud billowing up. Scholar Samuel Dirksz van Hoogstraten (1627–78) likened painting to “a mirror of Nature, which makes things seem to be that are not,” calling it a “sister of reflexive Philosophy.” Adjiashvili oscillates between the existent and the nonexistent, the concrete and the elusive. The mirror and the reflection are akin to evidence; a proof of something that may be a fleeting moment, soon to become a part of the light wave.
Yossi Mark’s reading of the present is informed by his perusal of art history, particularly Italian Renaissance. In True Repose he depicts a woman whose posture is inspired by Caravaggio’s 1606 Death of the Virgin. The painting was commissioned for Santa Maria della Scala in Rome, but was rejected as a desecration of the memory of the Virgin. The focus on the Virgin’s death, rather than her ascension—in addition to rumors that Caravaggio used a sex worker as a model—was considered contemptuous. As in a photographic zoom in, Mark painted the upper body of a woman, possibly sleeping, perhaps dead, creating a dramatic viewpoint at a private moment. The dark-somber tones and the marks on the canvas produce a distant, ironic quality that prevents regarding the work as a mere tribute. Mark deconstructs the image. He scrutinizes the way it was made by using Renaissance-like painting techniques, and peruses the narrative told in the art of the past from the perspective of the present, but without the guise of myth, detachment, and defamiliarization.