A picture is worth a thousand words

Artist Michal Na’aman showcases her unique blend of paintings and phrases in her new exhibit

ARTIST MICHAL NA’AMAMAN (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Michal Na’aman is the most celebrated living artist in Israel. The 63-year-old was named the laureate of the Israel Prize in Fine Arts for 2014; the culmination of a career spanning four decades. Na’aman began her career as an art student at HaMidrasha in Beit Berl College, where she is now a professor. Her new exhibit, “Miki-Mouth,” is currently on display at HaMidrasha Gallery in Tel Aviv.
What is most striking about your work is your use of such a wide variety of materials and mediums. Can you talk about that? I began in the ’70s and I used mostly photographic and lithographic on cardboard. I had a few billboard installations, on which I put the famous sentence in Hebrew: “The eyes of the nation.” It was spoken by an Israeli soldier after the war in 1974 about Mount Hermon. Because of the circumstances, it caught my attention. I was living in Tel Aviv at the time, and I was born in the Jordan Valley. We could see Mt. Hermon on a clear day. This was a major installation for me.
Another installation I did had written on it, “A kid in its mother’s milk,” omitting the prohibition. Then, I gradually moved on to mixed paintings.
I developed this unique painting style which involves masking tape and oil paint. So it’s made of two things: one is actual canvas with the oil paint, and the other is the mounting of the masking-tape skin. My paintings can be skinned and then show themselves, or they show what hides them from our eyesight. It’s a complex blending of invisibility and visibility. Usually, I start with more basic colors in the oil paints and then slowly, it becomes a nice rainbow of color. I called one The Flood, because it was a flood of paint. It’s also a play on words because of the story of the flood in the Torah, and the rainbow that comes after. It was also about the miracle of the rainbow and our pact that the flood would never happen again. The rainbow was the sign of restoration between humans and superhuman power. I call the group of mixed masking tape paintings a “legion.” In Hebrew, it’s “adonai tzva’ot,” which means “Lord of [hosts].” I wrote “adonai tzva’im,” which changes it to “Lord of colors.” It’s a peaceful message.
You have a real knack for succinct and in-your-face titles. How do you come up with them? In the beginning, people used to ask me why I felt the need to add so many words, because paintings should speak for themselves. When I like a phrase, I use the words in the painting, so that the painting actually speaks out.
I find catchy slogans or sentences from popular culture; movies, television, books, everywhere. I find popular culture to be like the walking dead. It’s very rich for me to take from because in a way, these objects or words in my work are dead, but they speak up, like a ghost. All popular culture is full of ghosts nowadays: zombies and vampires are everywhere. I like to think about my work as dealing with the undead. The dumb objects shouldn’t speak up, but in my work, they do.
What music do you listen to when you create? Now, I only listen to talking on the radio, mostly the news. I need actuality. I like watching television also for inspiration; sports, all the zombies and vampires, Breaking Bad I also like. I found most of my sentences this way. I’m always on the alert and waiting for the next good sentence to come my way.
Can you describe your new exhibit, Miki-Mouth? My mother used to call me Miki, short for Michal. So I feel like a Miki-mouth, a strange girl who talks a lot. The title of the exhibit is interesting because so few can read it.
For some, it’s just graphic nonsense. It’s important to me that it also has a dumb function to it because I like dumb things. Like stains, they’re always strange. What are they? What caused them? Where did they come from? What do they signify? I can tell you that this idea of the stain on the wall is a good description of what I am doing, in a stenographic way. I have a piece with Lady Macbeth and the line, “Out damn spot!” There’s a lot of Shakespeare in this exhibit. I used Hamlet and King Lear, with the line “Out vile jelly!” I’m not a scholar of Shakespeare, but he talks to everyone in different ways, and this was mine. He belongs to us. I find it quite useful to use sentences from a dialogue because it’s always between two people and my paintings speak out to their viewers, as if it was a dialogue.
I also used a line from Alice in Wonderland, “Eat me, drink me.” The sentences I use in my work have the potential of addressing the viewer and conversing.
What has the process of putting this new exhibit together been like? It was a surprise actually. The head of the Midrasha phoned me and asked if I wanted to take the opportunity of winning the Israel Prize in Fine Art and make an exhibition, and talk about my work. From then on, it’s been a lot of excitement and hard work.
I had to let go of many pieces because I was taking from 40 years of creating. I ended up with between 30-40 pieces.
You’re a teacher now at the Midrasha. Was it a smooth transition from artist to teacher of younger artists? It’s quite common in Israel for artists to work as teachers because there is not a large market and most of us can’t live on selling our work. It’s beautiful being a teacher. I’m attracted to talking to young artists. I’ve been doing it for many years, and once in a while, I think I’ll retire. But then I think, no, next year. Next year in Jerusalem, maybe!