The artist as a touchstone

Landscape artist Avraham Pesso is taking part in an exhibition of Israeli and Chinese artists entitled 'What Is in My House When I Am Away.'

avraham pesso 88 (photo credit: )
avraham pesso 88
(photo credit: )
Like most Israelis, Avraham Pesso's silence was disrupted the night prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. The blazing sound of sirens charging through Tel Aviv streets rang in his ears throughout the next days, especially when the nightly newscast reported on Hebron settlers celebrating the premier's death by dancing at the tomb of Jewish terrorist Baruch Goldstein. The artist left his house early the next morning in a taxi bound for the Kiryat Arba settlement outside Hebron where Goldstein was buried. At his side he clutched a bottle filled with black paint, which he doused over the tomb while screaming, "Shame! Enough of this disgrace!" After the incident, Pesso and his family received threats from far-right activists, which drove them into hiding. Though he went to court, Pesso feels that the righteousness of his actions was vindicated when his sentencing of community service was carried out by producing a painting that now hangs in the Jewish-Arab community center in Jaffa. The 47-year-old impressionist is now one of Israel's most highly revered landscape painters, whose works spearhead auctions and sell for thousands of dollars. Art critic Adam Baruch lauded Pesso's most recent exhibit as "painting that stimulates the heart, the eye and the mind. Literally stimulates, as is. Reinstates painting with its old experience." Baruch, an obvious admirer of Pesso's stylistic experience of landscape painting, pointed out that "he is wholly absorbed in the landscape itself as an autonomous sphere of experience and gaze, a sphere in and of itself. He is immersed in the landscape as a camper, a hiker, a biker." In his south Tel Aviv studio, Pesso is silently transfixed by a painting of rippled water stretched over a long rectangular canvas. He pivots around and launches into a manifesto about the downward spiraling of Israeli public apathy toward their country with the same passion that had him color Goldstein's grave black more than a decade ago. Pesso is in some sense a touchstone to the development of Israel. The proud descendent of 19 generations in the Holy Land, his earliest relatives arrived around 1420 and settled in the north of Israel. His grandfather, a renowned oud (Arabic lute) musician from Tiberias who was the first Jew to receive a fishing permit for Lake Kinneret, was lynched by Arabs in 1939 during local riots. Pesso grew up in the Christian-Arab neighborhood of Wadi Nisnas in Haifa and can vividly remember playing in the streets with his Arab friends. He is nostalgic, recalling his early years wandering the Carmel, protecting wildflowers from pickers, "waging my own personal intifada against anyone who would destroy an anemone," he recalls. "I think that is when I gained my love for looking at things. A teacher of mine since told me that the most important thing was just to observe." He flutters around for his footing as his rant cascades through a critique of the new cadre of local politicians, false Palestinian aspirations and Jews during the Holocaust until he finds his grounding and eulogizes a sense of respect that Israelis once had for details. "Israelis used to care about their country, used to have respect," he says. These days, as his work gains attention, Pesso is taking part in a group exhibition of Israeli and Chinese artists entitled "What Is in My House When I Am Away" in a converted building on 27 Rehov Chisin in Tel Aviv. The premise of an international exhibition in Israel appeals to him and his conception of how art functions in the world today. "Art has become global, not local and can only be judged in comparison with the best artists… the standards are universal. If a work can pierce your soul and strike you down emotionally, it is effective. It doesn't matter if it's Israeli, Chinese or American." Having recently returned from his first visit to New York, Pesso recounts his childlike fascination with the towering metropolis and says he spent days wandering around the city with his head directed skyward. In turn, the works that emerged from his American tour retain a playful sense of discovery of the city and display an almost organic nature to the skyscrapers. Pesso considers himself an ardent Israeli, drawing strength from the familiarity of his surroundings to charge his work. "The paintings can only ever mirror the artist himself," he says. For this reason, he cuts himself off from his surroundings when entering his studio. "In my studio, I am king… king of my kingdom," he proclaims, adding that with time he has become more fastidious with his own work. Gone are the days when he would delight in intuitive sketches made on a whim. "I destroy my work more often these days than in the past. As an artist grows, so does his self-criticism." Painting was always Pesso's metier from his early days at the Haifa art school. He recalls the fervor with which he would immerse himself into his work and still pays homage to his first mentor, Meir Moses, whose teachings invigorate his work to this day. After completing his military service, Pesso relocated to Tel Aviv, where he painted sets for Habima Theater director Nissim Aloni. After the run of a single production, the set designer Yosef Berner emerged from a labyrinth of stage props and gave Pesso a valuable set of brushes, paints and canvas, telling him to "Just get out of here and go paint." When Pesso asked what he should do for income, Berner shrugged and said, "Don't worry, you'll figure it out." He was right.