What she sees is what she paints

Figurative painter Maïa Zer is the subject of a visually striking solo exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

Maia Zer 311 (photo credit: Maia Zer)
Maia Zer 311
(photo credit: Maia Zer)
Maïa Zer comes across as a quintessentially no-nonsense, blue-and-white, all-Israeli sabra girl. She is direct and to the point, completely open and easy to talk to. She smiles easily, laughs frequently, enjoys talking about herself and listening to stories about other people.
Her voice is husky from way too many cigarettes, and she would always prefer to meet and talk someplace where she can smoke.
Born in Givatayim, she talks of having spent “every minute in Tel Aviv from the day I could go there myself.”
She served in the army, she says, “mostly in the Sinai, until the last day it was still Israel.” Now 48, separated from her husband and raising her two kids on her own, Zer easily blends into the restless, edgy crowd that inhabits Tel Aviv.
Nothing is ever quite what it seems, however. Zer is also a full-time artist, a figurative painter with a growing reputation, a recent winner of the Haim Shiff Prize for figurative-realistic art, and the subject of a solo exhibition of paintings currently on display at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
As she walks Metro through the exhibition, Zer seems a bit uneasy with the sudden attention. As we navigate our way through a gallery crowded with people looking at her work, she comments, “This is so strange. I’m not used to this. All these people I don’t know, looking at my paintings and talking about them.”
The paintings they are looking at and talking about are all visually striking and easy to appreciate. Studies of nature – both large perspective views of places and finetuned looks at just a few branches of one tree – line the gallery walls, along with portraits of Zer’s friends, family members, and of Zer herself.
A good example of the latter is “Self,” showing the artist seated and painting herself from the reflection of an unseen mirror, perhaps a bit behind the viewer’s left shoulder. The painting’s most interesting feature is the look of almost grim concentration on the artist’s face.
Zer laughs at our word “grim,” and says, “When you’re sitting in front of a mirror, trying to catch something of yourself, you really need to concentrate.”
Among the most striking portraits in the exhibition is “Lily,” depicting the artist’s teenage daughter in a dark room illuminated only by the somewhat eerie light of a computer screen.
Zer explains: “This is my daughter Lily in her favorite position. When I painted her and my son Ilya, I tried to catch each of them in a situation that shows who they are in real life. I painted Ilya doing what he does most of the time: running, jumping and generally being in motion.
“But I also wanted to refer to some classical painters whom I really love. So in this portrait of Lily, I was referring to Georges de La Tour, a 17th-century French painter who used to paint very dark scenes in which a person is lighted only by the light of one small candle.
“These paintings are very dramatic – beautiful and exciting. And I thought to try to catch this very cold light coming out of the computer screen. The light is really the subject of this painting.”
By way of contrast, Zer points to “Tami,” a painting of her sister working at a laptop on an outside terrace overlooking Rothschild Boulevard, where Zer lives.
This time the computer has, so to speak, been “put in its place.” Its light is not seen, because the natural sunlight dominates the view.
Zer: “This painting does not reference classical portraiture quite as much as “Lily” does. A lot of attention is given to the surroundings, the greenery of the boulevard beyond the terrace.”
There is an interesting anomaly in Zer’s output of paintings, something neither animal nor vegetable. In the midst of her many portraits, landscapes and studies of trees, fruits and birds is the recurring motif of a piece of cloth. This piece of cloth – red with thin white stripes – is the subject of many of Zer’s paintings, including two in this exhibition.
One shows the cloth occupying the entire canvas; the other shows it having been tossed onto a wooden table with a glass top. We see the cloth draped somewhat haphazardly over the table, both cloth and table lighted by some very weak sunlight from a nearby window.
“I still have this red cloth. Sometimes I take it out of the closet and I paint it again. It’s always something that I like to paint,” says Zer. Asked why, she replies, “First, because the étude of painting cloth is something really classic, and also because it reminds me of paintings I love.”
Asked if there might be some special significance to this particular piece of cloth that appears over and over again in her paintings, Zer smiles, looks at her shoes and answers simply, “No.”
The rest of the exhibit is about the natural world, specifically the natural world as it appears here in Israel. We see broad perspective paintings such as “The Valley of Jezreel,” close-up studies of tree branches and fruit (“Thicket in the Galilee”) and combinations of both as in “Pomelas,” which depicts a fruit-laden tree against the backdrop of a landscape with an infinite horizon.
Asked if these very picturesque views are really “realistic,” Zer replies, “Yes. They are from me sitting in nature, looking at what’s in front of me, and painting ‘live.’” The scenes, however, often appear a little too pretty to be true, leading one to wonder whether she might be idealizing nature, just a bit. “Well, in any selection of what you want to paint, there’s some kind of idealization,” she says. “When you crop something from your field of vision and emphasize something else, there’s definitely some idealization of your subject. But generally, I paint what I see.”
“Generally” does not mean “always,” however; and in “Orchard,” the largest painting in the exhibition, we see a definite blend of figurative realism and whimsical fantasy.
The scene is a quiet little glen, far out in the countryside, with an array of Israeli flora and fauna that seems almost dreamlike.
Zer explains, ““Everything in the painting is from Israeli nature, but what I was aiming at was some kind of fantasy – walking the fine line between being decorative and realistic. This is something that I admire very much in old paintings, mixing the two perspectives.
“There is a great contrast between Renaissance and modern perspectives in art. Today we like to distinguish between ‘naturalistic’ views and an inclination toward the ‘fantastic.’ But in Renaissance painting, these differences were less pronounced. The two things could coexist.
“THIS IS something I really like. So I wanted to mix a decorative perspective with realism in this painting, and the huge size of the work refers to paintings that were done on the walls of villas in Roman times – of Caesars and the grandmothers of Caesars.”
Having discoursed on all the paintings and in evident need of a cigarette, Zer proposes that we decamp and head toward a nearby cafe. Settled comfortably behind a cup of strong black coffee, we ask the artist a few final questions.
How long have you been an artist? Always. Really, I was always painting, since I was a very small kid. I used to take the Tel Aviv Museum art courses for little kids. I have always painted – always, always.
Are you a full-time professional artist? Absolutely. I make sandwiches in the morning and send my kids to school, and then I sit down to paint.
That’s my life, really. I go to sleep early because I have to be very active in the morning.
Painting is the center of my life. That, and my two kids. Raising them is something that I really care about a lot, and enjoy a lot. You see can this in the exhibition.
Also, my kids really are my first critics. After every session, they come back from school and tell me what they think of the painting.
How does it feel to have a solo exhibition at the museum that gave you your first art lessons? I feel fantastic, and very honored.
Aside from those early lessons, where did you study art? I studied for a while at the Avni Institute, but I didn’t finish. I don’t consider myself someone who ever had a real teacher. I lived and worked for a while in Paris and Amsterdam, learning a lot. I met interesting people along the way, but I’m not part of any school. I look at these schools of painters from the outside, with lots of appreciation, but I’m still learning.
Do you accept the characterization of yourself as a “figurative” artist? Yeah, absolutely.
Do other forms of art, like abstract expressionism, or minimalism, speak to you? Abstract paintings are something I really admire, but not something I do. I really live the great abstract painters, like de Kooning, and the German painters like Anselm Kiefer. I am happy when there are parts of my paintings that I find to be more abstract.
Actually, looking at an object and putting it on the canvas is something abstract in itself. You have to look at the lines and directions and the colors, and not just at the object’s identity as, say, a tree.
If you have been painting your whole life, why is this only your second solo exhibition, and your third exhibition in total? Mostly, because I don’t work very quickly. Sometimes a painting takes years to complete. But, okay, it’s not like I’m standing in front of a canvas holding a paintbrush for years. I paint, I stop, I think about it for a while, I come back to it.
The big painting, “Orchard,” was done very quickly.
Sometimes, the idea just flows; other times, it’s more complicated and it takes a long time to find a solution to things.
Another reason is that I was lucky to have had some patrons who supported me financially in my early years painting.
It’s hard being an artist. It’s a lot like a rollercoaster.
Sometimes everything is fine. Sometimes you’re very near financial catastrophe. The patrons supported me and collected a lot of my work. The downside of this is that you don’t get to exhibit much.
Is it important to exhibit? I really enjoy it now. If one of my paintings goes to someone’s house, I never get to see the reaction. Here, with an exhibition like this, I get to see people’s reactions.
I think that this is important, because you don’t only get good reactions, but also criticism, which is interesting. Yes, I think exhibiting is very important for an artist.
What’s next for Maïa Zer? Creatively, I kind of feel that I’m in the middle of something. I’m going soon to Italy to see the works of artists much bigger than me. I’ll continue to study. I’m sure that Italy will be a shock, seeing some of the things I want to see there, which will influence what I do next.
“Maïa Zer– Paintings” is showing until October 2nd at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 27 Shaul Hamelech Blvd.

Mon, Wed 10.00-16.00; Tues, Thurs 10.00-20.00; Fri 10.00-14.00; Sat 10.00-16.00; Sun. closed. Tel. 03- 607- 7020.