Art, the artist and the viewer

Playing with the roles of artistic experience in ‘Deliberately Random.'

Acrylic and collage on paper (photo credit: Courtesy)
Acrylic and collage on paper
(photo credit: Courtesy)
“The experiment is simple, so simple that at first it provokes interest and head-shaking everywhere.” – Hermann Rorschach
Walking into the Khen Shish’s solo exhibition “Deliberately Random,” viewers will be immediately drawn to the exciting qualities of her works, but they should expect that this will not be a frivolous gallery visit. The layered exhibition is composed of recent works by the Tel Aviv based artist: three series coined “inkblot drawings” and a series of five large-scale paintings. The works hang on the walls of the Ticho House, which serve to alternate between the two series. It is not the first solo exhibition for Shish, but it is a significant show that presents a thought-provoking moment in her career.
Shish, who has been active in the Israeli art scene for over 30 years, works in a “characteristic free-flowing style,” as described by curator Timna Seligman. Critics often describe her work as energetic, symbolic, and autobiographical – a taste of the perennial neo-expressionist style that continues to absorb Israeli art world as far as painting is concerned.
The show’s title, “Deliberately Random,” refers to the artist’s approach in her latest series of work, where she contemplates her involvement in the artistic process. Whereas some of the works in the exhibition appear to be the result a random artistic act, other works are redolent with symbolic intent. Both series have the potential to be experienced superficially by preoccupied viewers, or those looking for a fastidious explanation.
Starting with Shish’s inkblot series (Seligman states that these images serve as a technical starting point for the artist, and I believe they serve as an encouraging starting point for the viewer as well) – viewers will find that these delicate, symmetrical images are the result of Shish randomly applying material to paper and folding the page in half. The majority of this series is made using black ink – but Shish often minimally intervenes using colored acrylics, applying gold leaf, myrtle leaves and various printing techniques.
The elegant works are displayed as three distinct series. Shish maintains that they were initially accidental.
“Some ink fell on paper and I began to play with it. It reminded me of things that I do anyway – mirror images, beautiful flowers and obscured symbols.”
Formally, they echo a technique created by Hermann Rorschach, who developed a well-known psychological test in the early 20th century using symmetrical inkblot images. His patient’s interpretation of ambiguous imagery became a tool for diagnosing personalities – including subconscious thoughts, motivations and desires. Shish’s images are similarly primordial by nature, awaiting an unfolding of unique interpretations from the viewer.
Don’t get caught up in the psychoanalytical connotations here, which would be limiting. The goal is not to analyze your understanding of these works, but rather to think about the nature of them – that is, that they beg the viewer for time, space and thoughtful observation. Shish’s series from 2019 represents an important motive. For the artist, who started her career with meticulous methods in drawing, and whose painterly language has developed into a quasi-personal “diary,” the inkblot method was the discovery of something that equally depended on herself and the audience. Devoid of representation, Shish’s inkblot drawings are provocative in their own right, capturing the audience’s interest without giving them too much information. It is purely through observation of their aesthetic qualities that they gain a semblance of meaning – what is really important about them what they represent in terms of the viewers participation.
MOVING ON to Shish’s large-scale paintings, viewers will be immediately impressed by her enthusiastic, expressive style. Wild brush strokes are applied with a strong hand, creating a tangibility that transports the viewer straight back to the artist’s studio, to the moment of creation. The formal gestures prevalent are sensational, evoking powerful energy without becoming purely expressive.
A limited acrylic palette repeats itself, hinting to viewers that the artist’s use of color is not exactly unrestrained, but coincides with a signature set of imagery, which has been carefully developed throughout her career. The paintings appear to rely on this visual narrative, which draws on the artist’s interpretation of reality and personal experiences. Shish paints imaginative scenes with recurrent symbols that fill the canvases with mystery – long figures with heart-shaped heads and wide eyes, leaves, tears, large birds, flowers, and other hybrids of reality and imagination. In contrast to her inkblot series, Shish’s painting does not put the viewer at ease – their symbolic nature urges us to think of what it is that the artist wants to say.
In Shish’s carefully constructed painting series, it is difficult to reconcile with her obscure lexicon of imagery. Consequently, audiences to “Deliberately Random” can either get caught in the near Sisyphean task of unraveling Shish’s language, or settle for the satiation of the colorful, naïve style of these works. Neither of these approaches would catch the really intriguing aspect of this exhibition.
The remedy lies in the conceptual aspect of the show – a concept that is not evident on the surface of the works, but in the relationship between them and the viewer. As the viewer’s eye oscillates from one gallery wall to another, the necessity of the two distinct series is revealed. When making sense of the inkblot drawings, we have a certain power in front of the object – left free to appreciate and interpret them for ourselves. It is as if the inkblot series works as a liaison between the viewer and the paintings – guiding us to home in on the act of observing the aesthetic qualities of each image autonomously. We place a veil between ourselves and the artist when we practice observing in this way. Shish’s paintings, which appear to us as poetic self-portraits, present more of a challenge. But the viewer can reflect on the sense of power the inkblot drawings gave them and extend that to the act of looking at Shish’s paintings.
The beauty of this entire exhibition lies in its indeterminate meaning, and the fact that the viewer does not actually have to be limited to the artist’s or curator’s interpretation and language. We are often denied the opportunity to appreciate artwork on our own terms. We live in an artistic generation threatened by dogmatism – conceptual exhibitions are so heavy with text and philosophies that the viewer becomes a non-agent at its conclusion, the ubiquitous nature of imagery in our generation means that much of visual art is determined for us, whether by context or the artist themselves.
Even if we view a work of abstract expression, we are often stultified by the expectation of these works to evoke an emotional reaction.
“Deliberately Random” presents one outstanding concept, one that encourages us as viewers to be in a position of power, not over the paintings or the artist, but over ourselves. The exhibition mimics the viewers’ desire create their own opinions. Shish’s world of symbols and our world of symbols are reified in the same place, at the same time, rendering both the artist and viewer equal viable.
In a separate gallery adjacent to Shish’s exhibition is a display of Anna Ticho’s works, whose academic style from the 20th century poses an interesting contrast. While there is little connection between the two, there is a culminating rumination on the venerable act of painting and observing as the viewer exits the space. Art, the artist, and the viewer must be constantly reinvented. Whether Shish intended to or not, I hope her work will continue to evolve in its ability to reflect on the power of the aesthetic experience.
The exhibition is scheduled to run until April 18, but due to coronavirus restrictions currently in place, it is temporarily closed to the public. Contact the Ticho House at (02) 645-3746 for the most updated information.