Battling isolation

There's a lot to see at the Jerusalem Artists House just now. The galleries are dominated by the huge neo-classical paintings of Sasha Okun.

October 26, 2006 08:40
okun art 88 298

okun art 88 298. (photo credit: )


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There's a lot to see at the Jerusalem Artists House just now. The galleries are dominated by the huge neo-classical paintings of Sasha Okun (b. Russia, 1949, here since 1979). I've no doubt that many will find Okun's quite epic, semi-surrealist comments on the human condition quite off-putting. But to me, these compositions of a naked middle-aged couple in flagrante are at once moving and an object lesson in classical oil painting. They aren't about sex but about the survival of love - or the illusion of love - that luckily convinces couples, for a time at least, that they are not alone in the universe. The parable of the subject matter aside, these large, untitled oils on plywood panels are important as paintings, particularly in an Israeli context replete with conceptual banalities. In technique - a mixture of glazes and scumblings over careful underpainting, with small-brush details of eyes and mouths - they hark back 500 years. They quite firmly insist that classical painting is not dead. Most of the oils are in a long horizontal format, rectangles that confirm their rightness via the permutations of the Golden Section. Everything about these oils looks right because of Okun's fine sense of composition. His aging lovers (the man much older than the woman) inhabit an empty abstract landscape with a geometrical foreground; each background is the result of a different compositional and chromal solution. The union of figurative and abstract elements appears effortless. In one work in which the couple lie apart, the still kneeling post-coital figure of the woman has literally become an earth mother. Her back is distorted and transformed into a mountainside; she is part of the landscape. In comparison, the male, his role fulfilled, lies exhausted, bloodlessly pale to the point of expiry. Another theme of Okun's is the role of the remote control in helping us deal with isolation. In several works his grandiose nudes hang onto the remote literally for dear life. There are two ways to visually enjoy these oils. First keep your distance and take in the whole panorama from a distance of two to three meters. Then stick your nose in the work and admire the various types of brushing, the thin overlays of pigment and the tricks of texture. Nothing is out of control. There are two large vertical works, one an eyeball-to-eyeball close up of the kneeling woman and the more distant face of the man positioned behind her. The other is a huge overweight male nude seen from below in what might be a Palladian bathhouse; weightless, the figure does not quite convince. It is also the only work in which the genitals are visible. These works relate to certain types of contemporary styles of international painting today. The confrontational in-your-face nudes of Lucien Freud are an example. So are the even more in-your-face grotesques of Jenny Saville. And then there are the desolate pseudo-medieval epics and sexual encounters of Norway's anti-modernist Odd Nerdrum, whose tableaux of massive figures often defy scale. Okun is a courageous character. In the early days of the Refuseniks, he went to a Russian prison for refusing to paint for the regime. In Israel he has been constantly active on behalf of immigrant artists and is currently chairman of the Jerusalem Artists Association. He has now invested all his experience and a lot of time in producing works he knows will be too big and bold for most private collectors. One hopes the Israel Museum will acquire at least one of these remarkable oils. Okun has been a senior lecturer at the Bezalel Academy for the last two decades; his students, whatever their taste in painting, are obviously lucky to have him. A SABRA who returns regularly to Hungary, Eli Asaf (b. Israel, 1942) achieved doctorates in chemistry and physics at a Hungarian university before taking lessons in painting here. His very low-key landscapes are abstractions rendered in a palette of largely same-tone colors that blur the interactions of morphous shapes, but in Changing Clouds (just a name) he provides drama by positing strong contrasts and a few gestural linear touches. But best of the show is his Waterfall, a well-composed piece of gestural painting that makes a visit to the mezzanine gallery worthwhile. SHIRA ZELWER (b. Israel 1978), a graduate of both the Hebrew University's art history department and the Beit Berl art college, recently scored an instant hit with her painted wax figurines of young Israelis featured in the Mini Israel group show at the Israel Museum. Down in the entrance gallery of this venue she takes matters an interesting step further. This time she places her children in two painted wax environments, one three-dimensional, the other a painted wax frieze. The first is of a little girl in an old fashioned bath of very dirty water. The second is a very large triptych which combines the quality of a painted frieze with the illusionist perspective of a diorama. A little girl literally emerges from a garden to launch a colorful toy sailboat into a swimming pool. The depiction of this childhood adventure is remarkably successful as a painting. All the elements are perfectly placed, notably the colors of the girl's dress and those of the sail. The surfaces are wildly convincing. This is the artist's most interesting achievement to date. SHY ABADY'S Hannah Arendt Project, which comes to us from the Jewish Museum of Frankfurt, is one of those riddles wrapped in an enigma. Its raison d'etre is the centenary of the birth of philosopher Hanna Arendt. Working from photographs, Abady draws with pencil on paper to render portraits of a young and old Arendt, without really telling us anything about her, or her views, nor anything about portraiture. There are also some symbolic miniatures made with an electric pen on wood panels, poorly rendered. Two paintings of Arendt are simply incompetent. For background, there's an English/German catalogue with some rather obtuse texts for those who don't know or who no longer care about Arendt's relationship with the awful Martin Heidegger and her anti-Israel polemic about the Eichmann trial. Arendt is best remembered for coining the phrase "the banality of evil." This effort might be called the banality of secondhand portraiture. (All shows at the Jerusalem Artists House). Till November 26.

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