Painting a metal can like it’s a third-world-country

Dana Zaltzman’s show, ‘Mono No Aware,’ is currently on display at the Zemack Contemporary Art Gallery.

'The Can,' 2018 oil on wood, Dana Zaltman   (photo credit: Courtesy)
'The Can,' 2018 oil on wood, Dana Zaltman
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Who shapes your gaze when you view a painting? If the painting is well executed it is the painter. Just like a movie director creates what we see when we sit in the dark and trust the journey in time will be rewarding, the painter creates a moment of encounter between the gaze of the viewer and the painted scene.
In the case of Dana Zaltzman, who currently exhibits Mono No Aware at the Zemack Contemporary Art gallery, the skill is both revealed and hidden. Visitors entering the exhibition space often gasp, “it hurts to see how pretty this is.” I hear one woman say, the hidden part is the amount of time and work that goes into shaping each painting.
Suggested by Dr. David Graves, the Japanese term mono no aware means the pathos of things. It is a distinct term from the realm of Japanese aesthetics, for example, a person who is seeing the cherry tree bloom is enjoying the beauty, but that sense of pleasure is enhanced by the realization that this special time will pass, connecting the human who sees with the living thing that is being seen, as they are both temporary. Zaltzman is deeply committed to the process of bringing out the quality of “being in time” that she sees in things and light.
“I always paint from real life,” she tells The Jerusalem Post, “I don’t work from photographs.”
“What fascinates me is what’s in front of me,” she says, “I know the atmosphere I want a work to have because it’s directed, even when I set the bucket [I’m painting in my studio] I have [in my vision] the atmosphere I want to work with.”
Pointing to the paintings on the walls she shares how in some cases she searched through hundreds of pots to find the one specific pot that eventually made it to her studio, or how she searched the web for months until she was able to locate that one turquoise colored scale that was a good match to what she needed.
“I went over hundreds of leaves until I found the right one to place,” she shares, “my studio now has bags stuffed with leaves, some of my paintings took nearly three weeks to set up and a month to paint.”
Focusing on a series of paintings of golden metal cans, she says these plain, battered objects are “like a third-world country that people live at in sababa [joy].” Her interest in objects that are both simple and show the signs of the passing time, meaning objects that are somehow more honest about what they are now when the label is peeled off, led Graves to suggest her paintings depict an almost Asian sensibility to the beauty of things in the passing world. Connecting this intuition to the Japanese term wabi, or flawed beauty and sabi, the signs that time is always rushing through us, his essay is a valuable contribution to the show.
Zaltzman herself is deeply rooted in the Western artistic tradition, having painted realistically from an early age, she trained briefly under Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum before attending the Florence Academy of Painting, where she trained for four years on achieving such mastery. Today, she is able to produce hyper-realistic works if she so desires.
Nerdrum, according to the institute bearing his name, turned away as a student from a work by Andy Warhol to appreciate the 1661 Rembrandt painting “The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis,” a choice that shaped his artistic life as he devoted himself to realistic painting and traditions. Nerdum himself doesn’t claim to be an artist, instead he argues he creates “kitsch.” For the curious, The Hunt of Odd Nerdrum, a documentary series about his life and work, is now available on Vimo.
Zaltzman makes no bones about how Israel is not the natural place for her sort of painting. While realistic paintings in Israel came more into focus in recent years, thanks to the work of Israel Hershberg and Aram Gershuni, Italy, with its centuries of visual and architectural culture, offered her the knowledge she was seeking.
THE DIRECTOR of the gallery since 2015, Yaron Haramati, told the Post that the Israeli public deeply appreciates realistic paintings.
“People very much appreciate the technical ability [shown in realistic painting],” he said, One would be hard pressed to discover a painting without a sticker next to it indicating it was sold to a lucky collector. At a price range of 3,000 to 10,000 USD, Haramati says he believes that most people buy the paintings for their homes because they love them.
In the short history of Israeli art, there is a strong concept that the light in the region is harsher than the light in Europe. Early Zionist painters, this concept claims, trained in Paris and Warsaw had to undergo a painful transformation of sorts to correctly paint it.
Deeply committed to her work, Zaltzman explains just how seriously she takes light.
“In my own studios the walls aren’t white, as white reflects light and that damages my ability to construct the painting,” she says, “also, the walls here were painted in dark paint so that the viewer can focus on the light in the paintings.” She then goes on to explain how the sun moves in the sky and how that affects the substance light is composed of in the eyes of a well-trained painter, referring to “hot” light and “cold” light based on the hour of the day.
This careful consideration extends to the dark heavy frames which mount many of the works. “I often hang a piece upside-down or use a mirror to ensure I keep the focus point of the painting and control the light in it,” she explains, “I usually spend a 10-hour working day in the studio.” Unlike Europe, this country only has three or four gray days a year in which she can’t paint, she says.
THE PAINTINGS on display are deeply rooted in the Dutch tradition of still-life painting but diverge from it in subtle, intelligent ways. If, in the 17th century, a painting tradition existed in which the painter was commissioned to represent wealth or the biography or a person. The patron sitting surrounded by his “stuff,” Zaltzman paints yams, flowers, buckets stuffed with leaves and bricks laid on folded sheets.
The carefully constructed works, each leaf set in a specific place, each brick graduating from a personal contest judged by the painter, do not speak in the language of Memento mori. The corn is healthy and lush, the flowers fresh. They compel the viewer to enjoy a sort of mysterious playful alchemy. The hard worn-out brick is laid like a precious jewel on clean folded white cloth or is painted next to a broken egg. But who uses a brick to crack eggs? The works offer softness and hardness, lightness and softness; while some might argue that this is on the verge of the surreal, the paintings never hit us where we expect it. The scales show that metal is heavier than dandelions, not the other way around. While there is a tradition of the realistic-style painter as a joker, Salvador Dali with his melted watches comes to mind, these works are about something else entirely. To waste so much time and effort on a gag would be, if I can use such terms, nearly immoral.
This playfulness between light and dark, heavy and soft, things that are usually outside – such as bird’s nests – being placed in the studio, also presented on a white clean sheet, gives the mouth-eye a bone to chew on, if you will, something to give it pleasure as we are led in the path the painter wished us to take.
“There is a certain beauty here,” Zaltzman told the Post, “that the viewer needs me to show him.” Deeply committed to her passion as a painter, she explains she rarely takes on commissioned works, “I know what I want,” she says. The visitors at the exhibition during the interview often approach her and congratulate her work or thank her for making it.
“In Italy,” she says, “I had a teacher who used to tell me: ‘Show more, paint less’. Today I allow myself to play; reality is, on that level, an inspiration to the work that takes place in a painting.”
Mono No Aware at the Zemak Contemporary Art Gallery 68 Hey B-iyar St. Tel Aviv.