A cypress tree with Mazal

“Painting is easier than learning to write the letter G as a six-year-old.”

July 4, 2019 09:10
A cypress tree with Mazal

ARTIST CHANAN MAZAL with the book that seeded his Zionist dream.. (photo credit: LIANE GRUNBERG)

Being inspired by nature and figures in times when it’s not art-school hip to do so doesn’t bother Chanan Mazal. He knows he’s in good company. He reveres two of the greatest landscape painters of modern times – Vincent van Gogh and David Hockney.

In every leaf Mazal paints, there’s a sense that a cypress is not just a tree. It’s the essence of the painter himself.

 LA PICCOLA Gerusaleme, 2019, Gouache over watercolor on clay-coated gardboard panel, 46 x 91.5 cm (CREDIT: CHANAN MAZAL)

“I’m interested in bringing out the soul in what I see – whatever it is,” says the artist, who currently has an exhibition of his naturalistic paintings and portraits at the Jerusalem Theater Art Gallery. Mazal is showing exciting new works that remind us that the pillars of green found everywhere in Israel’s sprawling backyard can be symbols of how he sees himself – and how we as his viewers see ourselves in Israel, too.

Mazal notes, “Because cypress trees grow straight and reach up to the sky, they symbolize a connection between heaven and earth.”

While Mazal’s subjects are perfectly clear – whether it’s trees or figurative drawings – it’s not easy to understand their process of creation. When you put your nose as close to the canvas as a gallery guard will permit, you see a brush stroke and can recognize the gesture that created it. But beneath that, the process is hidden. You sense layer upon layer of mystery. You think you’re seeing a cypress tree. Or two or three or four. But it’s not that simple. Recognizable trees and leaves create meditative patterns that delight the eyes with elegant brush strokes, but there’s Jackson Pollock in the artist mix, too.

“I used to think Pollack’s painting was nonsense. At some point, when I started doing things like that myself, I realized there’s some beauty in what Pollack was doing. He threw his guts, his emotions, at the canvas. He was authentic. He was being himself.

For 25 years, Mazal and his wife, Adina, parlayed his artistic talents into designing and publishing art calendars, art cards and Judaica. His company, C. Mazal Art Ltd., was one of Israel’s leading businesses in the field. He won the Gold Prize for calendar designs at the Frankfurt International Book Fair and Bronze Prizes from the Israeli Society of Graphic Designers and the Ministry of Industry. But after 25 years in business together, he and Adina, his business partner, decided it was time to close the business and dive into new professional dreams.

MAZAL WAS born in New York in 1956 and immigrated to Israel in 1980. He studied history, received a master’s degree in social work, and returned to his childhood passion for creating and aesthetics by studying visual communication and illustration at Bezel Academy. After 25 years in business, as with many parents, his burst of readiness to move on to the next phase of his creative life arrived along with his children’s growing independence.

“My favorite works begin with something often very impulsive. When I do pen sketches, I’ll take a calligraphy brush, which I have no control over, and make a smear. Without planning or thinking too much, it will turn into a person.

 PIONEERS IN the Field, 2018, Ink, 36 x 51 cm (CREDIT:  CHANAN MAZAL)

The triptych painting Tell Me the Path, the largest work in the Jerusalem Theater show, began with throwing painting at the canvas and turning it over, letting it drip, and then waiting as layers take time to dry. Mazal could only start working on it the next day.
“I see initial stages as being aesthetic and have a hard time painting over it. But I have jerky random gestures, erasing parts and scribble scrabble, and cutting through with turpentine.

Working intuitively, Mazal says, he often doesn’t have any idea where a painting is going after that.

“For myself, I had a battle with ornament. I had an interest in turning ornamental pattern into a form of genuine expression and not just shallow decoration. I was always afraid of what they would say in the art world. A lot of people are angry – myself included – at the extremes of conceptual art shown in galleries today. It’s all pretense, all theory, and nothing really to look at. There’s no emotion at all in conceptual art. It’s not relating to souls of people.

When he’s alone in his studio, Mazal is a much sought-after teacher, often using the skills and sensibilities he learned in social work with his students.

“Painting is easier than learning to write the letter G as a six-year-old,” Mazal says, acknowledging that having self-doubts is very much part of the artist’s journey.

“I love teaching absolute beginners; just seeing that wow moment is extraordinary.

“One thing I can say about teaching, there are times I’ve taught people in six lessons what it took me 30 years to learn.
“When I decided I’m going to take myself seriously as an artist, to devote myself in about 2008, I had a lot of fear about the reaction of the art world. How would they relate to this? I discovered there was a whole movement in America called the Pattern and Ornament movement by artists who are now in their 80s, largely Jewish women like Miriam Schapiro and Joyce Kozloff, and a Robert Zakanitch, whom I’ve met several times.

“They did really interesting work, and that gave me the guts to go forward. These artists had exhibited at the biggest galleries and biggest museums. So I told myself I didn’t have to be afraid.

BUT MAZAL had an additional source of conflict.

“It had to do with a fear of expressing my religious and political feelings in art. For so long, the art world was left-wing, very uniform ideologically, politically, secularly, so that anyone who would do something ‘too’ Jewish or ‘too’ loving of Israel would immediately get labeled. That froze a lot of artists who didn’t share the ‘PC’ thinking.”

Mazal recalls that the breakthrough came about 15 years ago – not in the art world at first, but in m

“A revolution pivoting toward celebrating Jewish and overtly Zionist themes began in popular music and it is slowly reaching into the visual artists.

“The visual arts was the last bastion of this “pensee unique,” a so-called correct way of thinking from mainstream ideology.

For Mazal, the pathway to self-expression comes from honoring that inner truth.

“I’m going to put my guts into how I paint, whether its trees metaphorically about me, or people in general."

PLANTED BY the Waters, 2016, Gouache over multimedia on clay-coated panels, 183 x 91 cm (CREDIT: CHANAN MAZAL)

“I’m reminded of what Pierre Bonnard, also known for the stylized, decorative qualities of his paintings, once said: ‘Painting has to get back to its original goal, examining the inner lives of human beings.’”

Chanan Mazal will deliver a free gallery talk on Friday, July 12, at 11 a.m. at the Jerusalem Theater Art Gallery. He offers lessons in his studio in Katamonim. Chanan Mazal's exhibition runs until July 23rd at the Jerusalem Theatre Gallery.

The writer is an intuitive painter based in Jerusalem who loves to discover inspirational artists with a Jewish message.


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