Everything plus the kitsch and sink

A young painter has made a name and a niche for himself and other aspiring artists.

avi sabah painting 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
avi sabah painting 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Avi Sabah embraces a cultural phenomenon largely avoided by young contemporary artists. "I really like kitsch," he admits. One might not immediately guess it looking at his paintings. Though popular elements - taken from landscape and culture - enter into his paintings, his stark colors, angled motifs and dark, haunting imagery suggest a metamorphosis of this kitsch into a preoccupation with deeper roots. Sabah, 31, is the 2008 recipient of the Osnat Mozes Young Artist Prize in Painting. He opened a solo exhibition, called "Double Night" and awarded as part of the prize, at the Jerusalem Artists House on November 1. Born in Ma'alot, Sabah moved to Jerusalem to study at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. After his studies, he stayed in the city with a group of artists that eventually opened Barbur, a collective gallery in Nahlaot. "I always remember myself painting," Sabah says. "It was an important way for me to express myself. My parents claim I've been doing it since the age of two and say that when I was a child, I used to ask for things by making paintings of them. But they only started saying that after I got into Bezalel." Sabah says his decision to be a painter came to him in the army, where he was a unit commander in the artillery. "I understood that this was what I wanted to do. It's not that I didn't care about anything else, but I cared about it through the filter of painting." After the army he moved to Queens, New York, into a Forest Hills apartment cramped with 10 young Israelis. His fantasy had been to move to New York, paint, become famous. To that end, he bought canvases and painted in the bathroom, using the sink as an easel. "Then winter was coming, I'd spent all my money, had no decent job, so I came back [to Israel] with my tail between my legs," he recounts. He moved back in with his parents in Ma'alot and took a job as a security guard at a local factory. Returning was a shock. After the plenitude of Manhattan, Ma'alot and its factories felt full of nothing, he says. Working for a year to save up money for his studies, Sabah applied to Bezalel and moved to Jerusalem. "In Ma'alot, even in New York, people called me 'the painter,'" he recalls. "I was considered the 'artist,' even though I didn't know anything about art. At Bezalel, I saw that there were a lot of artists, that many of them were good, and that they had previous education and understood things I didn't." Art jargon sounded like gibberish to Sabah, who knew neither the terms nor the references, and for the first two years he was mostly silent. "I had a lot to say, but only in my third year did I start saying it." By his fourth year, he had become a part of the academy's artistic community, which he says was like an incubator. "The privilege of Bezalel is that every time you do something, you know there's someone to talk about it." Outside the academy it was much quieter. "You have no one to react to your paintings, to talk about painting with. This silence is frightening. Suddenly you're alone." Looking to quell this silence, several students who remained in Jerusalem banded together, working close to each other and continuing their discussions about painting. The group included Sabah, Masha Zusman and Yanai Segal - all painters. "When we had enough artwork, we wanted to exhibit as a group. We had a couple of offers from Tel Aviv, but we wanted to exhibit in Jerusalem. But there was no venue to exhibit our work, so we decided to establish one." This turned into the Barbur gallery, which is now part of the Lev Ha'ir Community Center, and is run collectively by the artist group. The gallery features young and lesser-known artists, and hosts events from film screenings and musical concerts to community gardening and knitting. Currently in its fourth year, the gallery is a model for the kind of cultural renaissance possible in Jerusalem, where young people like Sabah and his cohorts felt the lack of cultural life and worked to institute it for themselves. "We were very young artists ourselves, and we were also curating other artists. It was very naive," says Sabah. Such a task was anything but easy. For his last two years at Bezalel, Sabah worked nights as a security guard at the Israel Museum and continued for the first two years of Barbur, at which time all the members ran the gallery as volunteers. When Sabah was invited to teach a print-making class at Bezalel, only two years after graduating, his quit his job at the Israel Museum. Around that time, Barbur began to receive some funding and the artists received a small salary for their efforts. Three years of focusing on the local community has earned Barbur some international attention. Recently Sabah, Segal and Zusman spent time in Japan as part of an arts residency at the Tokyo Wonder Site. And in February, the three are scheduled to attend an art fair in Sweden called "Supermarket," which will focus on independently run spaces. Sabah says that Barbur has also influenced his own work. "We had a space, and it helped us feel quite free with our art. We didn't have to find a certain way of painting for this or that gallery. You have a gallery, so you can do whatever you want in the studio." In Sabah's work a viewer can appreciate a painting's humorous or recognizable elements while also seeing that there is a more complicated story to follow within. This "story" is embedded in both imagery - wood grain, shrubbery, portraits, simplistic drawings - and in materials - pressed wood planks, thickly applied oil paint, and the use of paper, copper, canvas as backgrounds. Over the past year and a half, his darker, disturbing portraits and sharp, penetrating shapes have given way to the development of landscape elements, as well as a mock-myth involving a cartoonish cross and ghost. "I call it jokingly 'The Exhausting Journey of the Cross.' But it's not about the Passion of Jesus Christ as much as about the long road of the cross as a symbol in Western art, which interests me more than its religious meaning," he says. Still, for an Israeli Jewish artist working in Jerusalem, it's a heavy and difficult symbol to incorporate into contemporary artwork. "It's comic-like, a little messy and clumsy. It's the only way I know to deal with the image at this point." Despite being interested in the history of Western art and conscious of contemporary artists such as Ed Ruscha and Philip Guston, Sabah focuses on different things when he's in the studio. "It's about material, why to use this one or that one. Like with formica - why do people make it look like wood? And then you have wallpaper that looks like formica, which looks like wood. And my painting is like a third-level fake." But there's also an emotional element, he adds. "When you go to the studio, you have to be as honest as you can. I think about all kinds of things - kitsch, love, jealousy, wood." In addition to his upcoming exhibit at the Artists House and an accompanying catalogue, as well as a series of openings at Barbur and the group's visit to Tokyo, Sabah is now preparing for a group exhibit in Hamburg, Germany, in January. He's teaching print-making at Bezalel again, as well as a second course in painting. And he says that as compared to two years ago, he now sees a future - both in and outside the studio. "Two years ago I was busy painting and thinking that hopefully there'd be an audience. Now I paint and understand that it seems likely there will be an audience." For more information about Sabah's upcoming exhibit see www.art.org.il. For more information on the artist see www.avisabah.com.