For painter Ido Bar-El, art is about making friends. Beyond a painting's aesthetic and conceptual concerns, he believes each painting is about understanding, empathy and communication. The challenge for him is to connect with the general public by communicating through the artwork. "One of the interesting things," says the 50-year-old artist and art professor, "is meeting new audiences which are thrilled, happy, even hungry to be exposed to new art." He explains that this can happen anywhere, as much at shows in Tel Aviv as in Helsinki. Which is why for Bar-El, who at the outset of his career exhibited at both the Israel Museum and Tel Aviv Museum, the current solo exhibit at the Ashdod Art Museum is a chance to connect to an audience he may not have accessed before. "The Ashdod Art Museum is an amazing museum," he says. "Because of its small exhibition spaces - each one about the size of a studio apartment - it offers the fantasy of an intimate museum exhibit, something on a human scale." Each room exhibits four to six paintings, and almost every painting has a wall of its own. As he puts it: "a space to live and be looked at." Most of the works in the exhibit are small. "Nothing gigantic," he says, "nothing larger than the body. Everything relates to the body in the sense that the paintings aren't trying to impress or impose themselves, they're not beyond reach." Bar-El is continuously trying to understand whether paintings can have an effect on a person: "Are they still doing something? Still slowing down time? Still slowing down our presence in the world?" By suggesting that they "help us find something we don't know we lost, or don't even know existed," he implies that they can. In 2003, while Bar-El was showing widely here and abroad, he was invited to be the head of the Department of Fine Art at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. "I took this step because people from the Israeli art scene and within the [Bezalel] art department had confidence that I could create a change," says Bar-El. "Some of my friends said I wouldn't make it more than a month and a half, and the late [artist] Rafi Lavie gave me three months at most." Bar-El explains that he started to teach at a late age, and that it changed him. "It was a tiring, exhausting, killing task. I didn't know how much one had to give of himself." Five years later, he is still the head of the department and jokingly refers to himself as the national employer in the art scene. But his friendliness is often complicated by his position. "The fact that I employ someone or don't becomes an evaluation of their art, of their friendship," he says. "I'm losing a lot of friends, sadly, by not being able to take them on." But he remains steadfast in the actions and decisions he does take at the academy. "I'm committed to the people I've brought in. Some of these processes are fragile. You need time to pass so that the change will turn into a fact." According to him, young artists carry an energy that sweeps their students along, which is a different form of encouragement. He looks for successful young artists, "but also artists who stutter. And we all stuttered." Bar-El, who is part of the first generation of artists who focused on the international art scene along with the local one, explains that this type of coddling is part of what disconnects the local art scene somewhat from the international art world. "When we keep the Israeli art scene connected to its umbilical cord, we're actually maintaining our provinciality and become irrelevant to the international art scene." Because of this, his focus has been to make connections between the international and local art communities. He is proud of having enrolled 30 foreign students in the Jerusalem BFA program this year. "We're starting to say no to people that I wish we could take just because we don't have the facilities," he says. "They bring sophistication, perfection, intellectual wit, sensitivity. It's intriguing." EQUALLY IMPORTANT for Bar-El is the increase in the number of Bezalel students who enroll in MFA programs abroad. "It's a real phenomenon. We have 10 to 15 students in various graduate programs abroad - at Columbia and Yale, in Rotterdam and Cologne - paying high tuitions or getting scholarships because they're so good." Because the local art scene is so small and tight-knit, he believes these efforts have the potential to influence Israeli art. "Cutting the umbilical cord is such a crucial experience for the Israeli art student that it actually enters into the work itself." Cutting the umbilical cord doesn't mean cutting all ties to Israeli art. "There's a connection in my work to the local heritage, and I can draw a line to my forefathers." The most significant of these are Arie Aroch and Rafi Lavie, as well as the tradition of Dalut Hahomer (poverty of materials, an idea which can be compared to the Italian Arte Povera). "One of the important points of my work is that it can be read in relation to the history of the Israeli art scene," says Bar-El. "I'm proud of that art scene and my connection to it." He describes his role as taking a flashlight and lighting a dark paragraph in this history. "I've never considered art as something that has to impose itself," he continues. "What we saw in the '80s coming from Italy and Germany, and always from America, was very imposing. In Israel, for myself and for others, art was about enjoying the taste of thinking, of looking for something that should be calm. I think that's why Israeli art is so esoteric. Maybe it's enjoying its own melancholy." Bar-El paints on found objects, from boards to street signs, from furniture to car hoods. For him thinner is as much a medium as paint, and he'll additionally use water-based paints, toxic materials or juice. He takes objects from the street and brings them to his studio, where he washes and cleans them. "It's a process that has an unpleasant, dirty side, but it also has a healing role. Giving neglected objects a new, pleasurable, aesthetic task in the world. I paint on everything, and there is a sense of attempting to overcome the object's materiality. The paint is almost a skin or a membrane on top of the object." He explains that with each work he has to start from the very beginning, selecting what to paint on, which tools to use, what media - being in total control while also losing control of the painting. He notes that even a simple spill has great power, a sort of revelation that may not be obvious for a few days after it dries. The process isn't as easy and obvious as it seems. "Sometimes a painting looks like it's 'no sweat.' But no sweat doesn't mean it's not hard work." THIS SORT of rehabilitation comes from Bar-El's effort, and it also comes from the artistic context. One of the things that interested him while preparing for the current solo exhibit was the critical point on the wall at which a painted piece of wood becomes an artwork. "This is the miracle of painting," he says. Working closely with curators Yuval Beaton and Yona Fisher of the Ashdod Art Museum has allowed him to explore this "miracle" by hanging the paintings at this critical point, which is lower than paintings would usually hang in a museum. "I've worked with world-known curators such as Jan Hoet [of Documenta] - the kind of person who knows everything better than the artist, any other curator and God himself - and I've also worked with curators for whom I've had to be their eyes and guide. This time, with Yuval and Yona, we worked together in a way that was unique." This working together gave him new access into the nature of his paintings: "I understood that while I always try to maintain the difference between each of my paintings, I'm also always painting the same painting." And he believes that through the selection process he and the curators succeeded in showing this nature. "A painting is a very weak phenomenon," he points out. "It's usually suppressed in the world, which tries to read it as a narrative, to dictate its meaning through linguistic terms." If his painting overcomes the physicality of the object on which it is painted then for him it's a success. "Painting is very fragile. It's still fighting for its autonomous well-being, for its survival." Ido Bar-El: Signs is currently on show at the Ashdod Art Museum. For more information on days and hours of operation, call (08) 854-5180.