Painting it the way it is

Turning to his own experience serving in the IDF, Israeli-American artist Tomer Peretz is out to shock the world by candidly portraying his wartime memories on canvas.

'Funeral' depicts friends of a fallen IDF soldier weeping and comforting each other at a military funeral (photo credit: PAINTING BY TOMER PERETZ)
'Funeral' depicts friends of a fallen IDF soldier weeping and comforting each other at a military funeral
Tomer Peretz hasn’t done too badly for someone with no formal education in his line of work. Jerusalem-born Peretz, who has spent the past decade as a resident of Los Angeles, was recently awarded the inaugural Arthur Szyk Prize for Disruptive Thought and Zionist Art.
The official bumph explains that the prize “was created in response to a new need for positive expressions about Jewish self-determination in the world today.” It argues that “too often, Zionism is represented as a policy or political view. The Arthur Szyk Prize seeks to show the world that Zionism is rooted in a deep and creative need that Jews around the world have felt – and expressed – for thousands of years.”
The $1,000 annual prize, say the organizers, “Recognizes a working artist in Israel, or an artist who has demonstrated significant commitment to Israel, for work that is innovative, activist, disruptive, and has the power to spark new conversations about Zionism today.”
Peretz’s work certainly appears designed to provoke thought and “spark new conversations,” about a range of topics. His paintings feature all manner of subjects, from a striking picture of former LA Lakers basketball great Magic Johnson to a somewhat psychedelic portrait of iconic rock singer Jim Morrison, and from a surrealistically-inclined painting of a belly dancer to an intriguing scene in which an IDF soldier is confronted by a bunch of keffiyeh-clad women, who are clearly not Middle Eastern, near the security wall. One of the women is holding a placard which reads: “I have no idea what I am doing here.” That certainly seems tailor-made to get people thinking.
32-year-old Peretz’s artistic road started a long time, albeit with little in the way of serious intent.
“I was always doodling stuff, on desks at school, on scraps of paper,” he recalls. “I did it for fun.”
After high school Peretz spent five years in the IDF, serving as an officer in the Golani Brigade. Almost all his service coincided with the second intifada and he went through quite a few difficult experiences which continue to inform his way of thinking as an adult, and as an artist. One of the pictures in the collection Peretz submitted for the prize shows an all-too familiar scene of soldiers, relatives and friends of a fallen IDF soldier weeping and comforting each other at a military funeral.
“It is an exhibition of works which relates to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, from the point of view of the IDF soldier – not in a political sense, but from an emotional standpoint,” he explains. “All of that comes from my own experiences as an IDF officer.”
Peretz’s entry to the competition was also a tangibly substantial one.
“There were 20 giant paintings, each of which was around four meters by five meters,” he says, adding that he had every intention of making a statement with the works. “I worked on this for around six years. The exhibition, in fact, is designed to convey the values that I know, the ethics of the IDF. That’s what I wanted to show in the paintings – an ethical and moral IDF.”
Peretz is, of course, aware of the fact that – to put it lightly – not everyone around the world will relate to the image of an Israeli soldier in quite the same positive light.
“I am trying to depict the Israeli soldier in the most sensitive and positive way possible. This is a critical collection – critical toward the media. In the media you can see, for example, an image of an Israeli soldier in an unflattering position, but what the media does not show is what happened before and after the photograph was taken.”
This is not just some fanciful idea, or the artistic portrayal of Peretz’s political opinion. The man has been there and done that, and knows exactly what he’s on about.
“I was in all sorts of situations, and took part in all sorts of military activities, and then later I’d hear a news report about what had happened and it was totally different from what actually took place in the field, which I’d seen with my own eyes.”
The scene Peretz depicted with the keffiyeh-clad protesting women was taken from a real-life situation.
“You spend night after night, on guard duty, at a checkpoint with [Palestinian] kids coming up to bother you the whole time, and European women and all kinds of people with cameras just waiting for you to lose your cool, and maybe to let off a round... after being endlessly provoked. These are the things you don’t see in the international media.”
It looks like the LA-based artist has got his work cut out for him if he is striving to influence the generally accepted negative view of Israel and IDF soldiers. But Peretz is wise to that.
“Look, I am not trying to change the world. These are just things that I went through personally, and saw with my own eyes. I sometimes have to take flack over stuff like that.”
Surprisingly, in particular, Peretz has a hard time with his co-professionals.
“I get criticism from a lot of artists,” he notes. “But I didn’t set out to make a political statement with the paintings I entered for the [Arthur Szyk] prize. It started from the painting of the weeping soldiers. I had no idea how the project would evolve.”
Going with the flow seems to be a recurrent theme in Peretz’s life. It was on a post-army service trip to Argentina that he first tried his hand at producing a work of art for public consumption.
“There was a hotel owner in Buenos Aires who asked if anyone could do a wall painting for him, so I said I could,” Peretz recalls. “I told him that if it didn’t come out all right he could erase it.”
In fact, the creation came out just fine.
“I did a picture of Jim Morrison,” says Peretz. “It was great.”
A short while later, he arrived in Los Angeles, intending to stay for a month or so before setting off for the Far East. But he quickly got into the arts scene there and the rest is history.
“I didn’t think of myself as an artist. I just made pictures. It just happened.”