An embarrassing display

The 'Wild Exaggeration' exhibition at the Haifa Museum of Contemporary Art serves up the Grotesque.

art sad patining 248.88 courtesy (photo credit: )
art sad patining 248.88 courtesy
(photo credit: )
"Wild Exaggeration" is the name curator Tami Katz-Freiman chose for her exhibition of grotesque art at the Haifa Museum of Contemporary Art, and indeed a wild exhibition it is, all the way down to the catalog of the exhibition printed on unusually flashy neon-colored paper. The exhibition sports many painting in screaming colors, showing bizarre bodies in strange surroundings. The forty artists on display in this group exhibition are mainly of the young generation, between 30-40 years of age, most of them from the local scene. The overwhelming majority of works are paintings and drawings, next to several sculptures and a small number of video works. Artists from the international scene are rare in this exhibition, but perhaps this choice makes it all the more interesting insofar as it highlights a current trend in the local art scene. The term "grotesque" is originally derived from the word "grotto," alluding to the ancient Roman murals in the basement of Emperor Nero's Domus Aurea pleasure villa. These pagan wall paintings, labeled "grotesque," were fanciful representations of jumbled, orgiastically and anatomically confused wild animals, human heads and flora containing allusions to nymphs, satyrs and centaurs. Even though it is an antique style, it has never lost its relevance and the Grotesque has seen revivals throughout the history of art. While in antique times it was used as embellishment for the walls of the halls where the "decadent" was celebrated, in modern times it became symptomatic of a zeitgeist of decadence and a swan song for society's ideals, a style that pointed out the alienation of the individual from the community. The paintings of the Grotesque are often of a horrifying ugliness, confronting the viewer with a loud and disturbing portrait of society. It is as if grotesque art invites us into a hall of mirrors at the fair; a voyage into the the dark heart of society's psyche. Says Katz-Freiman: "The clash between the amusing or the ridiculous and the scary or the frightening characteristic of all the selected works is essential to the Grotesque's ambivalent being. The existence of 'tainted' humor is always accompanied by a hint of anxiety, alienation and fear." The laughter evoked by the Grotesque is the nervous twitter of embarrassment that occurs when society's facades begin to crumble. PROFESSOR SARAH Cohen Shabot of Haifa University writes in the essay accompanying the exhibition catalog: "The term Grotesque refers mainly to a body which appears in different forms and is subject to perpetual transformation, specifically in the ways it communicates and interacts with other bodies and the surrounding reality… The grotesque body fails to maintain the order and uniformity allocated to it; it is a body 'fallen apart,' lacking control; it emanates alienation and questions the legitimacy and eternality of those things most intimately familiar to us." Here the disfigured body becomes a metaphor for the state of the alienating world surrounding it and interacting with it. It thus refers us back to our selves, dragging us back to confront those revelations and insights that we would rather ignore. "The fact that most of the participating artists are Israeli and young also points to a zeitgeist of sorts in the local context," says Katz-Freiman, shedding light on the revival of the Grotesque within the Israeli intellectual world. One of the artists that hunted down the awkward laughter of the Grotesque is Netally Schlosser, a young Israeli painter who spent the last years living and working in what has become a favorite getaway for Israeli artists - Berlin. Her painting Woman with gloves sports all of the aforementioned characteristics of the Grotesque. The lady smiles a smile to end all smiles; an inverted, painful grimace is what we are faced with; a grinning set of upside-down false teeth screwed into a face. This frightful smile - so un-ladylike - is mirrored in the form of her pearl necklace, thus forming a clash between her uncontrolled deviated mockery of a smile and the jewelry reminiscent of her effort to retain a bourgeois façade. This murky smile repeats itself throughout the exhibition, accompanied by bared flesh and dismembered bodies, smudged makeup, and scatological and maimed body orifices. The figures of this freak-show are more than "fed-up" with swallowing what society serves them. A circus of the abject, they throw up the thing that made them so sick - right into the spectator's face. Gili Avissar hits the nail on the head in his painting with the speaking title Ugh. Sticking out its tongue, this figure gives a non-verbal, yet comprehensive comment about society that is echoed throughout the show, whether we approve of it or not. For those who dare to walk where angels fear to tread, the show will be on display through Jan 2, 2010.