The house that Messeg built

From the gloomy landscapes lies a depressive energy that emanates from his own dispirited personality.

At the heart of Aharon Messeg's gloomy landscapes lies a depressive energy that emanates from the bowels of the earth and his own dispirited personality. In canvas after canvas, darkness pervades; a battery of deeply rooted trees thrust themselves through a cross-section of scorched fields and warped houses, highlighted only by tinted roofs or slivers of blazing blue sky. The 125 oils and watercolors in his current retrospective, At the End of Thought, position Messeg as an artist whose works are essentially one-dimensional. Obsessed by his immediate surroundings, he has called upon a fertile imagination for raw descriptions of a conceptual Israeli landscape, but has not ventured into areas that require painterly experimentation. By and large, Messeg's compositions are a combination of flattened images and nervous sketching that have been brushed, scratched, stained and rubbed in tones of black, white, plum-purple and midnight blue with intermittent swipes of crimson and a grimy lemon yellow. Messeg was born in Baghdad in 1942 and came to Israel at the age of four. He is a self-taught painter who has refused to study in a formal setting. Nor has he allowed himself to be influenced by popular aesthetic forces that might alter the direction of his own work. Recognizing Arie Aroch as Israel's only important painter (sustained by a faceless portrait in blue, red and black from the late 1970s), Messeg has kept to himself in a somewhat hermetic fashion, knocking out similar paintings for almost 25 years. Before concentrating on landscapes in the early 1980s, Messeg painted several vigorously colored me-too still lifes influenced by the likes of Moshe Rosenthalis and Jean David. In the main, subjects contained fish, fruit, flowers and a raven, the latter a significant icon symbolizing both the good and the bad that would recur in his compositions until most recently. (Open Museum, Tefen Industrial Park). Till November 1. THE UNIQUENESS of abstract expressionism was its ability to confront the viewer with distinctive robust mannerisms of gestural and color field painting that were not only fresh and innovative, but exceptional in the history of modernist art. The New York School of abstract and gestural painting burst onto the scene shortly after WWII with such notables as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Klein, Adolph Gottlieb, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and the spiritual mentor of the group, Hans Hofmann. The Tel Aviv Museum's attempt to mount Post WWII Trends in American Abstraction fails miserably. It is difficult to present a major subject with minor pictures. The show opens with a dozen or so small works, mostly on paper, hung to provide the visitor with theoretical background references for greater things to come. Unfortunately, they do not arrive. The TAMA, like the Israel Museum in Jerusalem from whom it borrowed several canvases, does not own any great Pollocks, Newmans, de Konnings or Motherwells. One of several works by Arshile Gorky, a small turbulent oil, only hints at his invaluable contribution in connecting the significance of surrealism to American abstraction. The same applies to a rather banal oil on masonite by Josef Albers from his Homage to the Square series. Size played an integral role in the New York School. Large formats provided painters with an important arena of action, shown here by a most beautifully applied field of indescribable beige over a pale gray-blue undercoat by Jules Olitski; and a passable composition, symbols and all, by Adolph Gottlieb. The lone Mark Rothko, a trio of diffused red, ochre and white rectangles, hardly projects the spiritual qualities so many have applied to his art. The basic components of Post-Painterly Abstraction - support, format, color and form - is given credibility in familiar works by Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis and a flashy, stained, transparent, smallish horizontal work by Helen Frankenthaler, who comes across far better than her colleagues. Even the hard edge painting by Ellsworth Kelly is hardly a match for this great precursor of minimalist art. More than five decades of abstract painting in the US is concluded with a pair of monumental shaped canvases by Frank Stella and a caustically colored geometric design by Peter Halley. But like most exhibitions where you hang what you have, large gaps have been left open. Where is Clyfford Still, Sol Lewitt, Al Held, Richard Diebenkorn, Brice Marden, Ad Reinhardt, et al? (Tel Aviv Museum of Art). THIRTY ARTISTS, recipients of prizes in four separate categories from the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport, show their stuff at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. What with a range of works by both seasoned professionals and recent art school graduates on a path of discovery, quality is often replaced by a sense of exploration and investigation. Half the young artists show works created in digital or video media, including After Winter Must Come Spring, a lovely series of crisp floral photographs by David Adika; and astonishing, skillfully crafted objects by Lea Avital. Of special interest are mixed-media works by Hannan Abu Hussein, an audacious artist who attempts to build bridges between art and the harsh cultural mores in the Arab world. High marks for design go to Daniela Yaniv Richter for an installation of ceramic stones and Pini Leibovich's quirky chair made of metal pipes, plastic food wrap and a plethora of stretched colored balloons. The Minister's Prize, awarded to seven artists, each working in a different media, embraces an exceptional installation of machine and sculpted nature surveyed by a model of a jet propelled phoenix by Eli Gur Arieh; subliminal moody canvases by Mosh Kashi; and gruesome reliefs of an open wound made from gummy candies by Michal Shamir. In the category of "Encouraging Creativity," Avishay Eyal's illustrative paintings of assorted primates in the throes of becoming human beings with supposedly superior intelligence, stand apart for their biting social content, as do photographs of solitary, abandoned houses in threatening environments by Tali Amitai Tabib. Also in this category, Eliahou Eric Bakobza deserves mention for his wacky installation and decorative paintings based on an amalgamation of historical Palestinian-cum-early Israeli iconography; and Yitzhak Livneh for Good Night and Invention of Painting, two works that investigate the methodology of easel painting and the astuteness of human vision. (Tel Aviv Museum of Art). Till October 25. ISRAEL PRIZE laureate for photography Alex Levac has mounted a marvelous exhibition entitled Doggie Style. Subtitled Dogs, People and What is Between Them, the show contains 40 quite incredible photographs culled from his book of the same name. Levac's love of the canine breed, and their relationship to their masters and other animals, is evident. His candid prints at the seashore, in the city or the privacy of home are filled with episodes that brim with humor, irony and the bizarre. But most of all, they display a sense of genuine humanity. Whoever said that a dog is a man's best friend had a direct line to Levac. Highly recommended. (Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv). Till December 30.