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(photo credit: Israel Museum)
Japanese art currently figures prominently at the Israel Museum. In addition to the large show of contemporary Japanese art, there is a large exhibition of the stunning self-portrait photographs of Kimiko Yoshida, All that's not me. Nearby, in the Billy Rose Pavilion, is an array of Japan-influenced works by 12 Israelis. Also nearby are Japanese classic devotional works in a lovely little show devoted to Buddhist thought and art (to be reviewed next week).
Tokyo-born and Paris based, Kimiko Yoshida is a refugee from male-dominated Japanese society. The title of her larger-than-life self-portraits is most apt. She recently spent a month at the Israel Museum disguising herself and her origins with robes and artifacts she selected from the museum's collections of ethnography and archaeology. In some of the same-size prints, she almost disappears, becoming merely a support for the artifact.
Yoshida, who paints herself and highlights details does, however, provide a clear link with the geisha tradition of makeup, in which the face is painted to virtually eliminate individual personality (also a tradition among clowns in western circuses). Yoshida, 43, paints her face to harmonize with the artifact she wears, sometimes receding even further from our gaze in the process. In the prints, she looks half her age. The accent is mostly on her eyes and lips, a geisha makeup trait. A particularly spectacular effect is achieved in a four-eyed portrait employing a Noh theater mask.
Curator Nissan Perez writes that Yoshida maintains a precarious balance between reality, dream and fantasy and that the paradoxical combination of self-obliteration with the search for identity "adds to the drama that is ever-present in her work."
But you do not have to delve into Yoshida's psyche in order to enjoy her unusual photographs. Despite their basic similarity of approach and technique, each offers a different resolution and experience. Only a few are banal.
IN THE Billy Rose Pavilion, which resonates with a plea for an acoustic ceiling, curator Mira Lapidot presents Far and Away - The Fantasy of Japan in Contemporary Israeli Art. Lapidot's verbose accompanying essay takes thousands of words to tell us something about the effect of Japanese art on 19th-century French painters, none of whom ever went to Japan; and about the effect of Japanese contemporary art on the dozen contemporary Israeli artists she has selected to make her points, although she admits several of the Israelis never had anything Japanese in mind.
Lapidot does put her finger on the graphic flatness that fascinated both the French and some of today's Israelis. The 18th and 19th-century ukiyo-e woodcut prints, which consisted of beautifully crafted outlines filled in with gentle vegetable dyes, eschewed vanishing point perspective and reductively aimed for elegance based on a minimalist approach. Today's manga cartoon books and Japanese animated cartoons and much contemporary Japanese art derive their clarity from the same approach. It is this elegant clarity that fascinates western artists and collectors who do not always know (and do not need to know) much else about Japanese culture.
Lapidot points out that Israelis break out of their provincial traditions by thinking in terms of an ersatz Japanese imagery that is, like most things Japanese, superbly crafted. All the Israeli exhibits, like them or not, are very well done. The show as a whole thus has a highly professional touch to it. And some of the exhibits are brilliant.
A series of photographs by Doron Rabina that turns a familiar part of Tel Aviv into the unfamiliar uses the composition and cropping that produce a Japanese feel. Rabina's Candlestick is made from a tiny landscape found in a pet shop, a steep hillside dotted with caves and plastic vegetation. A candle at the top of the mountain dripped its wax to cleverly resemble snow or a waterfall. The cute association is with Chinese classical landscapes.
Tal Shochat eliminates the depth in her murals of trees. In the wonderful series Still under Treatment, Aya Ben Ron created prints on lengths of cotton with images from manuals on how to save victims of drowning. The effects are stunning. She got the idea not in Japan, but in Taiwan. Yehudit Sasportas shows a painted wooden fan from a decade-old series made on this Japanese-style format (Degas, Pissarro and Gauguin all made watercolors on fan shapes). Like them, Sasportas paints European landscapes on the fans, in her case snow-capped mountain peaks, but she borrows the smooth, outlined color areas of Japanese prints.
Just how far a curator is prepared to suck things from her thumb is illustrated by Lapidot's comments on Yehudit Matzkel's photographs of local bonsai trees for her series Tree of Knowledge. Lapidot links the series to the current exhibition of Shmuel Charuvi's drawings of the plants of the Land of Israel "and the Zionist concept of 'knowing' the land intimately." Lapidot: "At the same time it questions the validity of this bond. Matzkel's trees are not planted in the earth, in the landscape. They can be moved from place to place and given a new home. The current context of disengagement, the redefinition of the country's borders and the impassioned struggle for the land also invites a critical political interpretation of this series."
The impressive series of square-format waterplant photographs taken by Roi Kuper are all of the same place, shot at intervals of just a few minutes. One looks for the slight changes that occur as leaves on the rippling surface move. Lapidot says the most significant element that links Kuper to Monet and Japanese prints is the very use of the series format. Who cares? The photographs live for themselves.
The ever inventive Zoya Cherkassky shows a comical painting of Japanese visitors to a museum (although the eyes are not right) and a comic version of The Three Graces, tiny cast aluminum figurines beautifully painted with acrylics in an abstract Japanese style and doll head form. Each has a different but vaguely samurai hairstyle, and one performs a sort of seppuku, the ritual suicide of disembowelment, but employs her paint brush to pierce her body. The figurines are dressed in something like the uniform of Japanese mini-skirted high-school girls, long a popular male fantasy in Japan. Lapidot writes "the conjunction of classical western sources and Japanese imagery and style is complex and subtle, raising questions about the relationship between art and consumer products, women as the object of male lust and the artist, or woman artist, as victim." Possibly. But these figurines are marvelous because of their inventive design and impeccable execution.
Lapidot even includes a 1928 tourist poster by early Bezalel teacher Zeev Raban, noting "two Biblical/Beduin shepherds at rest under an almond tree blossoming much like a cherry tree. In the distance, snow-capped Mt. Hermon rises above the Sea of Galilee like Mt. Fuji." This sort of thumb sucking may, I think, be a curator's way of committing seppuku.
Still, it's a good show and among other clever participants are Roee Rosen, Hila Lulu Lin and Eliezer Sonnenschein.