Painting the flesh of the world – Aram Gershuni at a distance

Intimacy and the power of painting are explored in a new group exhibition at the Petah Tikva Art Museum.

A painting of bread by Aram Gershuni. (photo credit: Courtesy)
A painting of bread by Aram Gershuni.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When hyper-realist painter Aram Gershuni wanted to paint a self-portrait with his eyes closed he did not solve the problem by having his photo taken and then working from that. Instead he painted half of the work with one eye closed, and the other half with the other eye shut. “I am unaware of any other painter who did it before me,” he modestly confesses.
Other hyper-realistic painters don’t mind working from photographs. In The Daily Practice of Painting [1993], German painter Gerhard Richter went so far as to say his paintings are about “practicing photography by other means.” Yet for Gershuni’s self-portrait, a photograph would just not suffice. A camera cannot replace the human eye, he explains, because it cannot pay attention. Since it is lacking eyes and a head, it can’t properly look at or experience the world.
The Hebrew tesomet lev, attention, literally means “giving heart,” he says, a nuance that’s lost in translation.
He further corrects this reporter when it’s mentioned patience is required to paint in the precise manner he has mastered. Patience, from the Latin patientia (suffering),’ is closely related to pain. “I don’t suffer when I spend hours every day painting,” he says. “For me, painting is sheer delight. It’s not even proper to call it work. As I see it, I have the great blessing to spend my life at play.”
Can this reporter, or a future art historian, take this statement at face value? Marcel Duchamp famously quit making art to focus on playing chess. Yet after his death in 1968, it turned out he was still creating art. When Gershuni says that painting for him is as joyous as playing a game is for a child, he does not mean that painting is a childish thing to do or that he is in any way childish. He would not have opened his Studio HaTahana painting school in Tel Aviv where he patiently guides students if the thing he was doing was not serious.
What then is this serious, demanding thing called painting? What is it good for?
“Painting was originally created for practical reasons,” he says. “If you wanted to document events or a specific person like a king, or to tell a story to those who could not read, you needed a painter. This was true for most of human history until the camera was invented.”
Even today, when most of us think of paintings we think of the portrait of Thomas Cromwell [1532] by Hans Holbein the younger or The Disasters of War [1810-1820] by Francisco Goya. Before the invention of the camera, a prince and princess would exchange portraits as part of the process of arranging a marriage to ensure some affection could be had in this upcoming union.
“With my students, I often refer to martial arts, which carry some resemblance to painting as the invention of the gun made them useless,” he explains. “Yet something else emerged alongside the practical, historical practice of martial arts, which goes beyond the need to subdue an enemy and continues even today when it’s not needed,” he reasons. “Some say it’s an aesthetic, others ethics. This is why a tradition is vital to offer rules to this game of painting, so that victory could be attainable.”
The importance of a tradition, and masters to learn from, is something some readers might find surprising in a world where artists have been known to break the rules and create works that challenge, even ridicule, social norms.
In 1977, Gershuni’s father, the late Moshe Gershuni, had his students in Jerusalem pass around cardboard pieces with the declaration The Problem of Painting is the Palestinian Problem. The work was subsequently presented in the 1998 “Eyes of the Nation” exhibition in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
A painting of flesh by Aram Gershuni. (Courtesy)
A painting of flesh by Aram Gershuni. (Courtesy)
Much of the artistic drive that propels Israeli culture is fueled by a powerful need to deal with issues of identity, politics and power, as well as the fact Israel doesn’t have a visual tradition in the same sense Europe has. Without cathedrals and old masters to visit and copy, artists like the late Gershuni and the late Raffi Lavie argued in favor of works on cardboard paper and plywood in which words and even acts become the focus, not careful studies of how light falls on an object painted on canvas as in the works of the Dutch Masters.
Gershuni, in contrast, paints on wooden panels made of birch.
“I am not an artist,” he insists. “I am a painter. I don’t know what is an artist and what is art. I’m a painter and I paint paintings. I know what that means.”
To be even bolder, just as asking a chemist how his work touches on Israeli issues would be meaningless – as chemistry doesn’t concern itself with elections and Jewish history – the same is true for the kind of painting Gershuni is engaged in. It’s done in Israel by an Israeli but it does not claim to solve Israeli problems.
Extending the image of the martial arts master who is so advanced in his training he no longer pays heed to winning and losing, Gershuni claims he isn’t concerned with how many paintings he makes or what prices they fetch on the market. (His 2007 painting ‘Bianka’ was sold for $40,000 to the Shemer family, Haaretz reported.)
One of the masters Gershuni openly refers to is his former teacher Israel Hershberg, who established the Jerusalem Studio School in 1998. Another major influence was French painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), who, like Gershuni, spent much of his career painting portraits.
The relationship between a painter and the person he paints is an intimate one, as both are required to spend many hours together in a space looking at one another. Gershuni described in past interviews that some time must elapse before a subject begins to feel comfortable enough to shed the social expression one is used to assuming in company. Hence creating a good portrait is difficult since the subject must allow their true self to show.
The title of the upcoming Petah Tikva exhibition, in which Gershuni will present his works alongside Yedidya Hershberg, son of Yisrael Hershberg, David Nipo [co-founder of HaTahana school of Painting] and Detroit-born Pesach Slabosky, is derived from a line by Maurice Merleau-Ponty in which he said that “seeing is keeping at distance.”
As Hubert Drefyus explained, Merleau-Ponty was unique among philosophers in suggesting that the body, not the mind, is a good way of figuring out the world.
In figuring out how to respond to the world according to Merleau-Ponty, Drefyus said, “You don’t need rules. Your body has a way to immediately get a grip on what’s going on.” This means that, for Merleau-Ponty, one does not focus on the classical question of how one sees what one sees, i.e. how we know what we see is “a tree,” but how one’s body moves in relation to the world of changing things. That’s why distance is important, as an object like “a table” loses its function if it’s seen at a great distance. It would become “a speck.”
When one goes to a museum or gallery and observes paintings, the viewer’s body is forced by the power of the paintings to seek the optimal distance from which to fully “get a grip” on what they are. Likewise, Gershuni says, “putting paint on surface is only one hundredth of the time I spend on a painting. A great deal of time is spent simply looking, both at the person I’m painting and at my own painting.” Time spent standing, walking, placing the painting at different places, getting a grip on it and allowing it to grip you.
“Painting is not a verbal activity,” he gently points out. “It begins where words end, when a painting opens and you are inside of it.
“Every painter is the first, and last, viewer in an endless process of the painting process,” he says. “The quality of my heart-force [attention] is the key to the quality of the painting.” 
Keeping at Distance: On intimacy in Contemporary painting
Curated by Liza Gershuni
Petah Tikva Museum of Art
30 Arlozorov St.
Petah Tikva
Exhibition March 14-June 29, 2019