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Before her death in 1996, I would sit with the painter Nora Frenkel and several friends in her small but beautifully tended garden discussing the politics of art, its people and its options while watching daylight pass into night.
That intimate patch of poetry, with its green vines, vividly colored begonias, geraniums and hydrangeas and the rare piece of ceramic sculpture dotted between grass and rosemary, is today like a mirror of the past that has sputtered into the quiet blackness of time.
But Miri Frenkel Eshet, Nora's daughter who on occasion joined us, has rekindled those affable evenings in a group of plein air acrylic paintings on paper entitled Gardens - Tel Aviv now showing at the Ramat Gan Museum of Israeli Art. Larger and more luxuriant than her childhood backyard, Eshet's striking renderings maintain the intimacy that memory has unfolded in order to isolate real places that project both the fidelity and the spirit of nature. They also provide the atmosphere for the spectator to move one step back, take a deep breath, and rethink the day's events.
By composing the majority of her gardens on a vertical format, Eshet has altered the traditional appearance of an extended horizontal landscape into a more solid, objective, reality. She has changed idyllic views of verdant environments into familiar places filled with a luminous quality that highlights textures of an approachable and touchable nature. In some respects they touch the edges of 19th-century French realists, especially Corot and Courbet, who expunged the dodgy mannerisms of romantic painting to create an honest pictorial appraisal of more pedestrian subjects.
Large foregrounds of grassy carpets, strips of macadam, a flowing river and gravel are carefully surfaced with layered pigment and a scumbling technique. They rush up the picture plane to collide with thick clumps of ficus and spooky willows in a background occasionally interrupted by crusty architectural structures gazing through her arboreal stockade. The absence of figures and animals in a city noted for its unending energy increases the importance of the buildings as they become symbolic of an introspective human presence, understood but not seen.
Dubnov Park, painted during the twilight hours, is an exceptional observational picture controlled by an unfriendly grassy plane and several thickets broadly brushed in dark bottle green splashed with highlights of emerald. Divided by long angular shadows piercing several shades of a yellowed lawn, the menacing trees and grass are segmented into triangular slices that, together with a quintet of staunch white trunks receding into the background, shelter a bright sliver of pale apple green stretched across the painting's long horizon.
At what time of day Independence Park - South was painted is irrelevant, for the vigor reflected by the brittle surface is of an indeterminate mystic quality. In this optimistic picture a broad path, beautifully swathed in cool shades of gray, pink, ivory and tickled with specks of black, terminates as a sharp horizon line of pure white clamped between foliage above and bushes on either side. The pristine ruler is drawn like a rail on which imaginary figures, past and present, have been transported in and out of the garden.
In painting after painting, Eshet manages to alter the Tel Aviv garden views into personal hiding places infused, however, with universal characteristics that enable the public to participate in her private experience.
MOVING ON to an adjoining gallery one is hit by a captivating range of raucously colored and amusingly drawn paintings by Leo Ray (b. Vilnius, 1950), based on a recurring group of cartoon-like actors, mostly human and feline with the occasional bird, horse and dog tagging along. Ray pulls out all the spectral stops by combining shapes, lines, dots and dashes in unadulterated violets with Kelly green, a bright yolk with flaming magenta and orange backgrounds with electric blue rectangles.
More than being an uninhibited colorist, Ray is an anecdotal painter. Each traditional canvas or larger work assembled from several different size rectangles into a domino-like composition, relates to the human condition as described in fantastic episodes. Domestic encounters, grotesque dreams and perverted events are expressed in an illustrative poster-style using heavy black contours for figures and objects alike. His Everyman is like a clown playing the fool but eternally searching for a deeper meaning to his life. And while digging, Ray's lead character gets involved in the most bizarre predicaments one could imagine. Titles such as The Right Way of Listening to Bird Songs, Soap Bubble Hunter, Riddle of the Horse Who Wanted to Cross the Bridge and Transparent Philosophical Cat provide enough fodder for the surreal cannon to blow one's mind.
The most interesting works in the exhibition are the composite pictures in which Ray meshes art historical styles with his own brand of comic drawing. Painted in 2006, each work focuses on a classically rendered female nude in sepia wash grisaille, and is supported by vignettes of explosive abstract expressionist brush marks, flighty calligraphic illustrations and bits and smaller units culled from his inventive menagerie. These particular works are less colorful than others in the show but are filled with the most harmonious range of disparate elements and textures. Brush and palette knife, transparencies, ala prima, realism and caricature intertwine in a most alluring manner.
Although Ray's images are fresh and often provocative, their free-wheeling placement on flat planes with no perspective can be associated with the inverted proportions of a child's imagination. But his art is much more sophisticated, a clever mixture of Klee, Appel, Rouault and the French poster designer Sauvignac. And what with his poking fun at Velasquez in Artists and Model, 2005, and at a combined celebration of Modigliani and Matisse in Reclining Red Nude, 2006, one can add a satirical pinch of irony to Ray's up-front, scrumptious art.
IN THE museum's entrance hall the veteran Israeli painter Amos Yaskil (b. Haifa, 1935) exhibits a wide range of landscapes, still life and interiors that are derivative and by and large mediocre.
By combining bits and pieces from Israeli old-timers Gutman, Castel, Avni and Menachem Shemi and attaching them to the expressiveness of Van Gogh and Soutine, one can define the likes of Yaskil's pictorial lexicon. Every canvas is packed, edge-to-edge, with an undefined confluence of shapes, lines, colors and textures. Very few compositions have a focal point. They wander aimlessly in all directions under thick layers of pigment and poor drawing.
Yaskil's parents came here from Germany in 1933 and settled in Haifa where his father, Abraham, painted and taught art for his entire life. That Amos Yaskil would become an artist was almost pre-ordained. He moved to Tiberias three decades ago and has since devoted his artistic career to painting the Galilee and the Kinneret. (Ramat Gan Museum of Israeli Art, 114 Abba Hillel).
No closing dates announced. Hebrew-English catalogs available for all exhibitions.