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During the early 1980s, Elie Shamir (b. 1953, Kfar Yehoshua) was fresh out of Bezalel Academy and, undoubtedly influenced by the times, painted brutishly figurative canvases filled with angst that mirrored the emerging group of German Neo-Expressionists.
Shamir, like his contemporaries in the North (Baseliz, Immendorf, Lupertz, Kiefer and Fetting, among others), was responding to the festering intellectual approach to art by the Minimalists and conceptual practitioners. His compositions embraced an approach that carried strong emotional content and a reactionary palette for both models and landscapes. But by 1995, all the expressive passion, physicality and originality seemed to have evaporated from Shamir's paintings.
Shamir's current exhibition, "Valley: On the Road to Kfar Yehoshua," at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art contains several of these early canvases. In On the Way to Being Sacrificed (1985), a nude Shamir walks behind his parents - who are also nude - as they stand motionless on the scorched earth of the Jezreel Valley. Each person in the trio is given equal painterly status, described as sculpted, granite-like forms in a similar range of violet, black and red. Stiff and unbending, mother and father are captured in a moment of fear or apprehension, for turning back does not seem to be an option. Their arms hang rigid at their sides and their stride has lost its gait. Shamir, simultaneously the sacrificial lamb and son, like Isaac, bears the tinder on his shoulders.
Allegorical or symbolic, the picture is deeply grounded in Shamir's search for artistic direction. At the time he painted this oil he was questioning his immediate past as a student and what was happening in the global art world.
The Judgment of Paris (1987), a 300 cm. x 160 cm. picture, was a feeble attempt to amalgamate pure easel painting with conceptual art. The three figures, as well as the background's urban landscape, are stiff and unconvincing and the predella (lower panel on a painting, often used in Renaissance altarpieces) is too deep in symbolism to make a difference. Father (1987), however, appears to represent a turning point for Shamir if one examines the aggressively brushed cloth and facial features in local colors applied in wild swipes and slashes.
The exhibition is an extensive review of Shamir's portraits, oil sketches, landscapes and a group of full-figure female nudes. The first hall contains self-portraits, a dozen frontal views (one in a Galilee landscape) all telegraphing the same closed-lipped, serious, rather unemotional individual. The next section contains 20 portraits, several of which are quick oil studies, and three full-figure nudes.
Following the same parameters used in his self-portraits, the sitters are all head-on and fully lit and stare relentlessly as if they were trying to catch the viewer's attention. There is no softness in Shamir's portraits, nor are there alternating qualities of passion and humor. The figures, despite good rendering and solid brushwork, are inflexible as every fold of skin or muscular form is appropriately considered - overkill.
Two additional sections include The Valley and Its People and The Artist's Family. It is in these paintings that Shamir reaches his true self. Having been brought up in this rural farming environment from childhood, he should remember the odor of turned earth and the aroma of budding foliage, the essence of the cowshed and an appreciation of the vast horizons and stark sunshine that sparks the Jezreel Valley into life.
Because it deviates from the obvious, I found myself engrossed by Dead Ox (2000). Found in a concrete enclosure, the reclining taut bovine (rigor mortis) has been caught in mid-afternoon light observed at a slight foreshortened perspective from his rump to his head, providing an angular opening that lets the eye wander slowly into the composition: a simple arrangement of four rectangular panels of farmland and sky stretching from edge to edge with only the slightest indication of life on the horizon. A lovely painting and well worth stopping at.
Valley, On the Road to Kfar Yehoshua; Elie Shamir: Paintings. Until November 14; Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 27 King Saul Blvd., Tel Aviv. Tel. (03) 607-7020.
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