A journey through Druksland

Michael Druks has weathered conceptual, video and installation art and come back to painting.

Druks 298.88 (photo credit: Museum of art, Ein Harod)
Druks 298.88
(photo credit: Museum of art, Ein Harod)
The world is full of painters who have been sidetracked occasionally by other artistic mannerisms and yet, in the end, retain their sanity and remain painters. Michael Druks is such a painter, one who has weathered the ins and outs of conceptual, video and installation art and has, in the recent past, come back to painting. Despite his strong sabra origins (b. Jerusalem, 1940), Druks came to a conscious decision, following studies in Tel Aviv and a round with avant-garde theater, to make his way in the larger arena, and after several months in Holland he settled permanently in London in 1972. His association with Israel has been on the edge, and his involvement with things and issues Israeli on a daily basis have been minimal. Although he has mounted several one-person exhibitions in Tel Aviv and is constantly included in local theme shows, he has also been a consistent contributor to institutional and solo exhibitions in Europe and the UK for the past three decades. His transition from the provincial atmosphere of Israel to one of the world's major art centers has given him the opportunity to view the world as something of an isolationist - not necessarily through a narrow looking glass, but from a wider perspective. This extended view has over the years nurtured his inner needs and brought him back to his origins - and, in so doing, to his senses and true self. A proper retrospective at the reputable Museum of Art in Ein Harod - initiated, organized and defined by its incisive curator Dalia Bar-Or - covers Druks's career from the early 1960s to the present. The span of works in all media provides the visitor with a complete understanding of what he was and is: painter, conceptual, video and installation artist, writer, theorist and self-styled philosopher. I was first introduced to Druks as a conceptual artist in 1975 at Druksland, a fascinating exposition in which the concepts of identity and personality in space and time were investigated in collage, printing and drawing. Having been reminded again of Druks's mapping series in the current display, including a slew of metaphorical pictures surrounding the intricacies of political geography, I immediately was drawn to Druksland (1974-1975), a printed portrait that has become an icon in Israeli art. The graphically designed portrait is used extensively as the seminal example of how the human body, space and cartography can interact to create a personal, social and political history lesson. Druks constructed a planular definition of facial details in a topographic manner and labeled them, in a Tolkien spirit, "Right Druks," "Left Druks" and "Occupied Territory." Around the face are scattered the names of artists and places that, at the time, were important contributors to - or in several instances, significant detractors from - the Israeli art scene. Before visitors are directed to three halls filled with alternate media - video, photography and conceptual pieces - they are introduced to a gallery of early paintings, assemblages and drawings from the decade between 1960 and 1970. Across from a handful of darkish assemblages is a group of figurative canvases whose explosive use of color and reductive rendering are an admixture of DeKooning and the CoBrA modalities. The secondary scales of contrasting viridian and orange palettes of these mischievous oils and mixed media paintings, worked between 1967 and 1970, are aggressive and resilient and project a striking, uncompromising sense of youthful exuberance. More, they contain the chromatic spirit that Druks would resurrect 15 years later. Once presented with these early pieces, it is difficult to understand what forces led Druks down a path of conceptual and film art. The derivative assemblages and objet trouvé sculptures, constructed from bits and pieces of wood that have been left raw or painted black and burnt orange, smack of Archipenko, Kurt Schwitters and detailed extractions from the abyss of Louise Nevelson's sinister altars. A few are the results of exposure to the constructed mannerism embedded in synthetic cubist works, especially those by Juan Gris. From the early to mid 1970s, Druks found himself defending the ideals of conceptual and performance art. The works during this period, a manner of expression without the tools of his adopted trade, were captured in a series of photographs, video films and handwritten documents. To Stand in the Corner (1972), Touch, Awareness, Perception (1977) and Is Sony a Name of a Person? (1975) are each a magnum opus of the rational-cum-intellectualization of art during those pasty years when art was going from pillar to post in an attempt to redefine itself and, unfortunately, moved aimlessly in several mystified directions. In 1977, Druks created a performance - first in Sammlung Ludwig, Aachen, Germany and then Tel Aviv - entitled Territory, Living Space. Playing mumblety-peg in a sandbox with another player, the jackknife kept falling and dividing an incised circle into smaller domains, and with each throw the activist's existence would become smaller and less tenable. The allegorical insights in this work are perfectly clear as they pretend to be in his documented series To Stand in a Corner. Looking back while surveying his contributions to Israeli art, I have come to understand that Druks, during those heady days of experimentation in the 1970s, was only visiting a world of art that deep down was alien to his true temperament - one that is deeply submerged in painting, in the direct physical act of brush to canvas and of composing with color, line and shape. Yet during the '70s, his alter ego found it necessary to follow the leads of an international style of art that, in hindsight, was merely a temporary link with today's digital explosion but which sidelined Druks's talents intermittently so he could express his socio-political emotions by harnessing messages on film and in photography. Having come full circle, Bar-Or and the artist have filled the museum's major hall with a couple of dozen canvases and works on paper from the past 20 years. Each and every painting is charged with images that are - yet aren't - absorbed from nature, or perhaps engaged from the artist's imagination. They are poetic compositions bordering on the surreal, displaying abstract elements and inexplicable signs and symbols that somehow seem familiar but are impossible to decipher. Planes fold into and over one another as thin and thick lines skittle around in a nervous, wiry manner. The marvelous part about these works is that everything in them seems to be just right, solidly composed and in place, leaving little to chance. The relationship between language (the ability to describe and classify) and perception (the need to create and observe images) is not a recent historical conundrum, but a holdover from the protracted documentations of art through the ages. In his battery of recent works, Druks takes us on a personal adventure as he incorporates into a single picture several alternate-looking components stripped down from experience and the subconscious. His incursions into a creative process in the end form robust pictures that contain all Druks wants to say visually, yet quite often nothing more than an apocalyptic arrangement of line, shape and high color. There is an enigmatic element that runs through Druks works of the 1990s. As biomorphic and geometric shapes are shuffled and spindly lines are used to bridge them, one's eyes are riveted to the internal structure of the pictorial design. Color-wise, Druks relies on the occasional violet shape surrounded by lemon yellow, vermilion and an electric blue scumbled onto translucent fields of diluted sand, sepia and burnt orange, contrasted by knife-like linear edges or figurative silhouettes prancing and diving into a colorful abyss. Although Druks did not adopt the machine influences that were amalgamated into many works by Francis Picabia in the first decades of the 20th century, there are visual references in Druks's pictures to the Dada master in his use of vague anatomical fragments and palpitating rhythms of organic forms sent into motion by a series of linked, thread-like lines and negative spaces. But Druks's appetite for the automatism of the surreal went a bit further than Picabia's machinations and pseudo-cubist compositions as the whimsy of Joan Miro took hold of his imagination, and with the Spaniard's inspiration, he began making sense out of what could easily have become pictorial chaos. Paintings from 2005 and 2006 are more reductive, less colorful and present a reverse psychological manner from extroverted declarations of the past to introspective statements of the present. Drawn in low key rather than enthusiastically brushed, they contain a limited number of conflicting shapes and planes, and the distinction between expansive backgrounds and frontal planes has all but disappeared in favor of a fragility that is as inspiring and it is prosaic. Expanses of watery beige and pale calamine are interrupted by sporadic scarlet, ultramarine and black contours slicing through the picture plane, trying to define graceful anatomical forms in a didactic rather than an erotic fashion. In the final analysis, one sees Druks as a committed erudite artist. He has managed to navigate the labyrinthine twists of several media, while with great personal authority he has sustained a characteristic of self-determination. He has returned to his true passion; standing before his easel, he ably orchestrates a new, unambiguously fresh pictorial vocabulary with each new canvas. (Museum of Art, Kibbutz Ein Harod). English-Hebrew catalog available at museum bookstore. Until August 11.