Deceiving appearances

Conventionalism is just one of the many forms of protest found in painter Sasha Okun.

Sasha Okun painting 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy of Sasha Okun)
Sasha Okun painting 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy of Sasha Okun)
Sasha Okun gives the impression of an average neatly dressed, well-mannered, middle-aged guy with a bit of an attitude. Not an easy feat for a painter who was part of the 1970s Leningrad underground art movement. "I dress conventionally," says Okun in a warm semi-formal tone, "but there's a protest in this conventionalism." Indeed, when he brings to his mouth a slim Pink brand cigarette with a lipstick stain pre-printed on the butt, it becomes clear that there is no lack of artistic idiosyncrasy in him. "I'm not part of the mainstream," Okun explains dryly. "I know how to play their games, I've produced videos and installations. But I only work in oil paint now. It's part of my dissident nature." Okun's "dissident nature" is to side with the tradition of academic painting. He quotes Picasso as saying that the biggest danger to modern art was the lack of sufficient strong academic work. Okun believes the academy's sin was to push away contemporary artists by insisting on its ideology. But he also blames Modernism for beating the academy and then simply turning into that which it rebelled against. "Even today, you can't make work without the support of the establishment, without some sort of ideology. Modernism kept its radical clothing, but it strangled all other forms of living art." When asked about which side he stands on, Okun answers, "I always believed that a person in good standing is a person on the defeated side." Born in 1949, in what is now again St. Petersburg, Okun graduated from the Mukhina Leningrad Academy of Art and Industry in 1972. He became a teacher at an art school, but since the only approved artistic style then was socialist realism, he knew he had little chance of ever exhibiting his work. That is until 1974, when a group of Moscow avant-garde artists organized a show on a vacant lot that became known as the Bulldozer Exhibition after the police had used bulldozers and water cannons to break up the exhibit. The incident brought the Soviet Union such negative international attention that when a group of Leningrad artists asked authorities for a space to exhibit their non-conformist works, they were allotted an area in the Palace of Arts. Okun was one of 46 artists that took part in the exhibition (four artists pulled out at the last minute for fear of later repression). Everyone waited for something dramatic to happen, but nothing did. Instead, there were long lines of people waiting for up to five hours in minus 20ºC conditions in order to get into the exhibition for a mere half-hour. The exhibition was a success, and in 1975 a second one took place at the Palace of Culture featuring 100 artists. At that time, Okun was approached by Eugene Abeshaus, who wanted to form a group, called Aleph, of Jewish artists within this larger non-conformist movement. Okun was against it. "What is Jewish art?" he asks. "There's no such thing. Look at three famous Jewish artists: Pissarro, Levitan, and Modigliani - stylistically each of them has more in common with their contemporary countrymen than they do with each other. That they all had beautiful sad dark eyes doesn't mean you can lump them together." Still, Okun joined the group, because, as he puts it, he didn't want others to think he was afraid to be openly Jewish. But once the group started holding "kvartinie" (apartment exhibitions), the authorities put on the pressure. Okun lost his position at the art school, and was put under a type of house arrest for a time. He remembers at some point being arrested and a police colonel telling him, "If I have to spend another off-day at work [following Okun around], I promise you three years [in jail]." Eventually, besides the pressure from authorities and the KGB, the army started looking to enlist him. "I knew I had to go east. The question was whether I'd go to the Near or Far East." He decided to hide out in Central Asia, and took the trip with a friend named Viktor Gliner. Before leaving, he went to visit another friend, Aba Taratuta, an activist in the Jewish struggle to leave the USSR who had a lot of American pocketbooks. Okun picked one out at random. The book turned out to be Elie Wiesel's Souls on Fire, Portraits and Legends of Hassidic Masters. He first opened it over a bonfire in the Karakum Desert. "I understood while reading this book that I should have read it at the age of 12, and not 28." Okun and Gliner returned to Leningrad after two and a half months of travelling, and decided to translate the book into Russian. They literally split it in half and set to work. At the same time, Okun applied for permission to emigrate. He received Gliner's half and started editing the entire translation while waiting for permission to leave the USSR. It came on the day he put the final touches on the manuscript. "It was Wiesel's first book in Russian," says Okun. "We typed out six copies, and then gave these out and each person also typed out six copies. This way the book spread. Many people I meet say it brought them [to Israel]." OKUN ARRIVED in Israel in 1979, and started working and exhibiting. In 1986, he was asked to participate in a group show. "I never knew how to say 'no,' "says Okun. "Just as I'd agreed to take part in the nonconformist shows, and joined the Aleph group, so I agreed to be a part of this show." The show passed without bringing any major changes to his life until six months later when he got a call from Prof. Yoram Rosov, who taught drawing at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. Rosov was going on a sabbatical and, having seen Okun's work at the group show, wanted to know whether Okun would be interested in teaching in his place at Bezalel. When it was time for Rosov to return, the students said they would only study with Okun, who refused to take over the position after having enjoyed Rosov's generosity in allowing him the opportunity. Fortunately, there were enough courses so that both artists ended up teaching at the academy. "I teach there to this day," says Okun with pride. In 2000, Okun had a solo show at the Ramat Gan Museum of Israeli Art. "As after most large exhibits, I felt empty. As a professional, I knew I could continue to paint, but I wasn't sure what for." Being a workaholic whose hands were used to doing something, Okun started drawing letters. A year later, what he ended up with was a book about food. "It was meant as a joke," says Okun. "But when I showed it to a couple of writer friends, they said I had a real book." The Book of Healthy and Tasty Living was eventually published in Russian and now there are over 70,000 copies in print. However, Okun recently came upon another problem: his son was turning 13 and he wanted to tell him certain things about growing up. Unsure of how to approach this task directly, he wrote a second book, Placebo, which he describes as a cross between an etiquette manual and an adventure story. During the time that he started writing, Okun also sat on the board of the Jerusalem Artists House from 2000 to 2005. Okun considers himself a painter, not a writer, and his main activity is painting. His large studio in the industrial area of Givat Shaul in Jerusalem is full of plywood planks - some as large as 2.5 x 2.5 meters - on which he applies his myriad layers of paint. Okun's academic approach is time-consuming on any scale, yet no matter how refined his technique and how long his process, there is something eternally raw about his subjects. The careful painterly attention he pays to each physiological detail brings his grotesque images to discomforting life. One is caught between a fantasy and reality that are both fragile and overpowering, unbelievable and all too familiar. "We're living in a transitional crisis on the order of the transition from the Roman Empire to the Middle Ages," says Okun. "Our time declares individualism to be one of its main values, but for some reason this 'individualism' all points in a single direction." Okun likes his spot on the fence. He was born in Russia, but has spent half of his life in Israel. He speaks Hebrew well, but cannot consider it his mother tongue. What he paints could only be painted here, yet he considers his cultural motherland to be Italy. "I've said it elsewhere," he explains. "I was born in the 20th century and live in the 21st. But I'll die in the 16th." He doesn't even try to follow the trends. "You can lie to others, but it's better to tell yourself the truth." He does what he wants, and it's enough for him that there are some people interested in this. There are projects he'd like to undertake - like a large-scale fresco - but "it requires a large budget, and it's no longer possible to have slaves." "I may not be able to do everything I want," he says, "but I'll die knowing I've lived my own life."