A Freudian slip of the brush

Psychiatrist-painter Evan Hillel Bellin's exhibit leaves the viewer uncertain who the patient really is.

March 26, 2009 15:52
A Freudian slip of the brush

Evan Hillel Bellin 88 248. (photo credit: Carl Hoffman)

Evan Hillel Bellin is an artist whose paintings are currently on display in a solo exhibition at an important art gallery in Tel Aviv. Evan Hillel Bellin is also a Doctor of Psychiatry, with a specialization in psychoanalysis. If you ask him questions about his paintings, he will provide short answers - very short answers - and then stare back at you with his face expressionless, creating a gaping silence that you are evidently expected to fill. While no doubt effective in getting a patient to open up, reflect and share his or her innermost feelings, this style of conversation poses some amusing challenges for a newspaper reporter trying to conduct an interview. When talking about anything other than his paintings, Bellin is genial, good-humored and surprisingly forthcoming. So this much is more or less certain: Bellin was born in the US almost 62 years ago in New Haven, Connecticut. He was a political science and pre-med graduate of Dartmouth College and later earned his MD degree at the University of California at Los Angeles. After a residency in psychiatry at Yeshiva University's Albert Einstein College of Medicine and some additional work in family therapy in Philadelphia, Bellin was certified in psychoanalysis at Columbia University in New York. He has practiced psychiatry in the United States and, after making aliya in 1995, in Israel; and he has taught psychiatry at Columbia and Albert Einstein, as well as at Ha'emek and Rambam Medical Centers. Dividing his time between Israel and the US, Bellin presently maintains psychiatric clinics in Tel Aviv and Timrat, as well as New Rochelle, New York and New Canaan, Connecticut, where he focuses on the treatment of substance abuse. And all the while, inextricably entwined with his psychiatric career, there has been his fixation on art. "My first sketch was when I was at Dartmouth, studying figure drawing and clay sculpture," he recalls. "I was 16 years old at the time - I started college early. That was my first exposure to art, and my first gesture on paper." Bellin explains that in the years following his initial art course at Dartmouth, his immersion in art has come in waves, rather than in one permanent plunge. "From Dartmouth, I went off to UCLA. This was the 1960s, and everyone was in a kind of revolutionary 'high.' I was involved in street theater. I wrote one play for our group that was actually performed. We got ourselves arrested up in San Francisco. My art at that point - aside from the street theater - was making posters that we put up everywhere, which said things like, 'Off the Pigs!' he says, laughing. Bellin studied painting informally throughout the 1970s and 80s with various artists in New York, as well as at a studio painting course with Anthony Toney at the Parsons School of Design. He is, incidentally, now in his second marriage, to an Israeli woman he met after making aliya. Bellin has three step-children from his marriage here in Israel, and two children from his first marriage in the US. These, then, are the threads of Bellin's life that lead us, inexorably, to his current exhibition of paintings, entitled "Parapraxis." Although he is very open about his life, Bellin has very little to say about his paintings. It almost seems as though he has relegated the viewer to the role of patient, to whom Bellin is holding up Rorschach drawings and Thematic Apperception Test images, demanding the viewer/patient's response without any comment from the artist/psychiatrist. And what exactly is Bellin holding up for us to react to? Well, the word for it is "parapraxis" (the plural is "parapraxes") which, as we are told in the exhibition's accompanying booklet, "is taken from the psychoanalytic dictionary and emphasizes a kind of slip of the tongue, something said, written, or even painted without prior intention, slipped out by surprise, as if by mistake. Psychoanalysis in its search after pure truth attributes great meaning to these 'slips.'" As Bellin himself says in the same booklet, "For the painter too, all marks on the canvas are parapraxes. None are repressed or cast aside as if to say there is some mistake; all bodily indiscretions borne by the canvas are taken very seriously as messages from the Real to the Real. As Freud would say, the body always joins the conversation. But for the Real to be recognized, Reality must be put to sleep and dreams and nightmares let loose upon the canvas." Such nightmares are shockingly visible on several of the canvases in this exhibition. While Bellin says that a few were painted from models, "Most of them were painted straight from my head." The paintings are almost all of women. One, her face hooded and her hands tied behind her back, is hanging at the end of a noose. Another appears to be tied to a chair. Many are naked - but it is the nakedness of victims, with bloody shreds of clothes torn violently away - as opposed to being simply "nude." Many are bleeding. A few are dismembered, missing arms or legs up to the knees. One or two have somewhat tortured looks on their faces; others don't seem to have faces at all. One is missing her head and neck; two snarling animal heads grow out of her shoulders instead. Not all of the paintings are quite as disturbing. A woman - happily nude this time - climbs into a bathtub in one; another, somewhat overdressed, searches for something in her handbag. One picture is of a mother and son at the sea. There are, in fact, several 'mother' paintings in the exhibition, all with the same cold expression on their faces, and all wearing the same kind of hat. Bellin somehow allows himself to let on that the mother in these paintings is in fact his own. Equally out of the ordinary is a row of small paintings, done at different times, that are referred to as self-portraits. Bellin says, "I didn't do these while standing near a mirror. These came from my head." Interestingly enough - and perhaps not surprisingly - the portraits all look different from one another, and none of them looks particularly like Bellin. In one of the most strangely fascinating paintings in the exhibition, a woman faces the viewer, displaying the results of some kind of extreme act of violence that has been done to her. Her hair is disheveled. Her clothes are in shreds. She is bleeding profusely from her left shoulder with streaks of blood descending down a naked left breast. But what draws the viewer's attention is the look on the woman's face. Her expression is one of serenity, bordering almost on smug defiance. This time, the viewer stares quietly at the artist, waiting for him to speak. After a brief moment of silence, Bellin says, "What's it all about, Alfie? Well, the major thing to remember about parapraxes, which are also known as 'Freudian slips,' is that the slips are involuntary. They are out of our control and a symptom of unconscious operations. Parapraxis is a sign - an indicator, so to speak - that the unconscious is at work." If that is the case, then what do these paintings indicate about the "unconscious" of this artist? After reflecting a moment, Bellin says, "These paintings are largely indicators of my intent to understand and deal with what I would call the eternal woman in her various transitional stages." He then points to the painting of the woman being hung and explains that it is a homage to Mary Surrat, the first woman executed by the US federal government for alleged complicity in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. "I saw a photograph of the hanging when I was a boy, and it has stayed with me ever since," he says. Are these paintings essentially some sort of therapy for Bellin? He replies, "What is therapy? In therapy, you recreate the ghosts of your past. Then you do battle with those ghosts and disperse them, somehow. You box them, you name them, you take their power away from them. Sure, I'm dealing with my past, and my feelings about my mother, about women in general, about my gender identity - all those sorts of things. But art, as I see it, is more than that. You're creating a living presence. You're creating an alternative universe, an alternative world. You're creating things that you can play with. It's different than just therapy." In addition to clinics in Israel and the US for Bellin the psychiatrist, Bellin the artist works out of his main studio in Timrat, northern Israel, and from a smaller one at his US home in New Rochelle, New York. He presently migrates back and forth, three months here, three months there. His plans for the future? "I want to keep painting," he says, without pausing to reflect or analyze. Bellin's "Parapraxis" exhibition is showing until April 7 at the Gebo Gallery, Beit America, Shaul Hamelech 35, Tel Aviv. Monday - Thursday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Friday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tel: 077-330-0141 [email protected]; www.gebogallery.com.

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