Art for all ages – and places

Lena Zaidel seems to have followed a go-with-the-flow line to the creations in her new exhibition, Homage, curated by Batsheva Dori-Carlier which opened at the Agripas 12 gallery this week.

HOMAGE TO Antoni Gaudi – Zaidel infuses her take on iconic art of the past with her own here and now. Her humor comes to the fore in much of her work. (photo credit: MICHAEL AMAR)
HOMAGE TO Antoni Gaudi – Zaidel infuses her take on iconic art of the past with her own here and now. Her humor comes to the fore in much of her work.
(photo credit: MICHAEL AMAR)
Artists can, and often do, frequently talk about setting themselves, and their ego, to one side while they let their muse-fueled creative juices flow unimpeded. That is a lofty ideal to which to aspire, and one that should, in an ideal world, be a given.
But, taking the altruistic road to artistic pursuit, as elemental a factor as it may seem, is easier said than done. That is, surely, doubly challenging when you include your own image in your work.
Lena Zaidel seems to have followed a go-with-the-flow line to the creations in her new exhibition, Homage, curated by Batsheva Dori-Carlier, which opened at the Agripas 12 gallery this week.
For starters, on a personal note, it was simply too wonderful for words to climb up the wrought iron outside staircase to the cozy exhibition space near the shuk, to see an actual physical, non-digital exhibition. After all these months of virtual tours, and sterile Zoom-based access to museums, to stand in front of tangible works of art reminded me – not that I needed much prompting – of the inestimable exhilarating joy of witnessing the fruits of an artist’s labors firsthand.
LENA ZAIDEL maintains an ongoing living dialogue with the masters of yesteryear. (Alexander Popov)LENA ZAIDEL maintains an ongoing living dialogue with the masters of yesteryear. (Alexander Popov)
Homage makes for a pretty decent reentry to the world of “normal” exhibitor-viewer relations. The half dozen large paintings on show make for eye-catching, thought-provoking and, even, entertaining viewing.
And if you have a propensity for seeking out reference points they are there in abundance. As befitting the exhibition moniker, Zaidel dips into the work and spirit of a spread of 20th-century giants, across a swath of disciplines, including Spanish painter, sculptor and ceramist Joan Miró, compatriot architect extraordinaire Antoni Gaudí – “he” of the still incomplete Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona, Romanian-Israeli Dada pioneer Marcel Janco, Jewish Romanian-French avant-garde writer Tristan Tzara (né Samuel Rosenstock) and Jewish American-born mostly Paris-based visual artist Man Ray (formerly Emmanuel Radnitzky).
Although all the aforementioned did their thing in the 20th century, and can – at a stretch – be said to be loosely connected in terms of artistic ethos, Zaidel says she chose her icon trajectories without too much forethought. And her omnipresent face, across the works, she says is down to trying to convey the temporal sequence, and tying the work of some of the great masters of the last century into contemporary artistic and street level vibes. “It is basically about denoting presence,” she explains without a hint of hubris. “It is a sort of grounding.”
Interestingly, seeing the artist’s face front and center in her paintings puts one in mind of a certain app that has been all the rage for a few years now, and also a means of expression that has been gaining increasing credence in the art world of late. Zaidel claims total innocence. “I didn’t even know it was called Art Selfie,” she protests, referencing the Google app that matches people’s faces with various great works of art stored in museums around the world. “I first painted my face, based on a selfie, and only later I read an article that it is a new direction in art, and that there are lots of artists who engage in painting based on their selfie.”
AN ART selfie of Zaidel and her husband, fellow artist Oded Zaidel, set against Miro’s abstract surrealist sculpture ‘Pair of Lovers Playing with Almond Blossoms.' (Michael Amar)AN ART selfie of Zaidel and her husband, fellow artist Oded Zaidel, set against Miro’s abstract surrealist sculpture ‘Pair of Lovers Playing with Almond Blossoms.' (Michael Amar)
She says placing her face, in various guises, front and center in her frames offers her a new, and revealing, perspective on the source of her work, herself. “The most interesting thing for me is to look at myself from the side. That is fascinating. Of course we are always looking at other people, which, of course, can lead to portraits.” Zaidel says she has paid her dues in that department. “I have painted 150 portraits over the years.”
That led her to where she is today, bringing some hefty extraneous creative baggage along into the bargain. “I worked in graphics and illustration for many years and, when I decided to return to art, I did that through portraits. I had people I know, and friends, sit for me. I had a social network long before Facebook and all that,” Zaidel laughs. At the end of the day, naturally, whatever we create must come from inside us and from our own life experience, borrowed influences notwithstanding.
Zaidel looks to her inner world, but says her selfies allow her to take a step back and consider herself more dispassionately. “I am an object to myself, to be investigated, in the third person. It is like the mask of Marcel Janco,” she notes, at last addressing one of the pictures hanging on the Agripas 12 gallery walls, awaiting the impending arrival of a public, no doubt, hungry for an actual exhibition visit. The work in question is Janco’s portrait of Tzara, one of the iconic items of the Dadaist movement, called Approximate Man, after Tzara’s epic tome of the same name widely regarded as a poetic masterpiece of surrealism.
In fact, the title of the exhibition may be something of a misnomer. Homage is not just about Zaidel doffing her derby to a bunch of yesteryear colossi. “I actually conduct a dialogue with them,” she muses, “a living dialogue.” So, is this her attempt at bringing those great masters into the here and now and, possibly, getting them to take a look at the world in 2020? “I [take] my work and draw them out of the past. I place them in the here and now. And my face resuscitates their work, although they are really no longer creations. We are talking about the human beings now. They have their own independent entity.”
ZAIDEL REVISITS Man Ray’s surrealist painting, which left an indelible impression on her in her youth. (Michael Amar)ZAIDEL REVISITS Man Ray’s surrealist painting, which left an indelible impression on her in her youth. (Michael Amar)
Zaidel’s experience in the sphere of graphic art and, certainly, of illustrations comes through loud and clear in her pastel drawings. They are sumptuously colored and all the figures and objects are neatly delineated. You know where you stand with Zaidel. That is not to say you get a “been there done that” sense from her paintings. There is plenty to view and take in.
Ne’er a dull moment is to be had from any of her pictures over in the alleyway leading off Agrippas Street. They are captivating, charming, enticing and absorbing in equal amounts. And, despite some seeming quotidian subject matter, there always seems to be a twist in the narrative tale. What, for example, is Zaidel trying to tell us by presenting herself nonchalantly dragging on a cigarette, jars crammed with paintbrushes dotted around her, with a Paz gas station, in the nether reaches of the Talpiot commercial and industrial district bringing up the rear. Oh yes, there is more incongruity in the form of half a dozen wolves – yes, wolves – most of which are prancing about the place with one happy to submit itself to the artist’s lovingly protective arm. Indeed, they make a fetching pair.
Actually, if you have seen Zaidel’s art in the past you may very well have noticed some of the normally stealthy hairy creatures depicted there too. “Yes, I like using wolves,” she confesses. “A wolf shakes you up. Makes you take a fresh look at things.” I wondered whether the presence of animal life – there are also a couple of pigeons and other feathered friends in the exhibits – may be a reference to some of the creatures that were spotted roaming through urban environs during the pandemic lockdown. “No,” she laughs. “I did these paintings two or three years ago.” Perhaps we have a prophet in our midst.
There is an attractive sense of fun to much of Zaidel’s work. She may be in the business of expressing deep-felt emotion and thought, but there is often a wink in there somewhere. Her take on the motif of the artist’s wife, a pretty recurrent theme across the decades and centuries of artistic output, for example, imbues the notion with new, somewhat comedic and even self-effacing content. The exhibition incorporates two relevant works – The Artist’s Wife 1 and 2 – with an oxymoronic mix of appealing textures and shades, a patently laid-back Zaidel, and a seemingly disparate interface between the cloistered creative inner sanctum of the artist’s studio, and assorted paraphernalia, wild animals and cross-cultural allusions galore. There are also plays on words in Hebrew, such as “omanut hamizug”, which can translate as “the art of air conditioning” or “the art of mixing.” “It’s all one big salad,” Zaidel chuckles. And a tasty one at that.
Dori-Carlier says she was drawn to Zaidel’s tongue-in-cheek mindset. The curator feels Zaidel is largely driven by a desire to mix and match, to reshuffle the pack, and refashion and reimagine concepts, themes and objects we may normally take for granted in day-to-day contexts. “There is the concept of ‘femina ludens’, the playing woman,” Dori-Carlier notes, offering a gender tailored paraphrase on the term coined by early 20th century Dutch historian and pioneering cultural theorist Johan Huizinga in the 1960s. In his book, Homo Ludens (playing man), Huizinga poses the idea that play is close in spirit to art and religion, and functions as a sort of departure from the material world. That, he adds, does not infer a disrespectful or flippant approach and, in fact, enhances a person’s ability to achieve cultural innovativeness.
THE ARTIST’S wife motif gets a meaningful makeover. (Michael Amar)THE ARTIST’S wife motif gets a meaningful makeover. (Michael Amar)
That line of thought sits well with the Dadaists and surrealists, whom Zaidel presses into joyful and merrily aesthetic service in this exhibition. “Lena achieves all kinds of original connections that produce a third element,” says Dori-Carlier, adding that it took her a while to ingest and appreciate Zaidel’s propensity for basing her pictures around her own appearance. “I didn’t really know what to do with it at first. It seemed a bit narcissistic. And then I understood that, in fact, Lena was doing the opposite. She was trying to work out how to bring the past into her present. What to do with that. She brings this great art [of the past] down to street-level manageable proportions. I find that so appealing.”
The personal, a personable, factor also comes across on Zaidel’s inclusion of her husband, artist Oded Zaidel, in her work too. The Gaudí tribute finds the couple looking down, as it were, to the camera, or cellphone, with the gargantuan restylized gothic-inspired pillars of Sagrada Familia towering above them. Just for good measure the serious looking couple each has a pigeon on their head. And why not? With Zaidel, anything, it seems, goes. “That’s a sort of gesture towards Picasso,” the artist suggests, with a nod to the Spanish artist’s 1949 Dove of Peace emblem.
In Homage, Zaidel also gets to revisit some of the idols of her formative years. “I remember I saw Man Ray’s iron when I was 15,” she recalls. “That made such an impression on me. And now I have finally done something with it.” The original work in question is called Cadeau – “gift” – one of the most celebrated icons of the surrealist movement, dating from 1921. Ray fashioned a conventional iron, the old type that was heated on a stove before use, and made it patently unusable by inserting a spine of protruding nails. Zaidel’s Man Ray’s Gift has the artist asleep on a desk, in a pose that references another iconic work by Man Ray, Black and White, which also pops up in Zaidel’s The Dream about Marcel Janco, the Dadaist’s plaudit to Tzara. And the appearance of a mosque-like structure in the background does not go unnoticed either. In Homage, Zaidel may be feeding off the past, but she is very much about the here and now.
Homage closes on July 18. For more information: www.agripas12gallery.com/