Acerbic artist

David Reeb's art is highlighted in videos filmed in weekly demonstrations by Palestinian villagers at the West Bank.

David Reeb at his new exhibition ‘48 60 300’ at the Tel Aviv Museum (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH 90)
David Reeb at his new exhibition ‘48 60 300’ at the Tel Aviv Museum
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH 90)
AN HOUR and a half into an interview with painter David Reeb on a sunny late July morning, an air-raid siren went off. The ushers at the Tel Aviv Museum, where Reeb’s new exhibition “48 60 300” is being displayed and the interview was conducted, hurried us politely from the gallery hall to the basement floor’s café. Other museum visitors also were gathering there, calmly waiting for the required 10-minute safety period to pass.
It was almost two weeks after Operation Protective Edge was launched to counter rocket fire from Gaza. With the success of the Iron Dome anti-rocket system alongside an alert mechanism that supplies residents of central Israel with a 90-second warning – long enough to find shelter – Tel Aviv seemed to have stepped into a bearable wartime routine.
Yet, if anything, Reeb’s exhibition, which opened weeks before the eruption of the latest round of fighting, exposes just how removed from normality things really are.
And it does so in a painful and beautiful manner – a disturbing amalgam ever present in the artist’s wide oeuvre of paintings.
Disturbance is a motif that is at the heart of Reeb’s controversial work. The exhibition, which displays creations from the 1990s to the present, opens with paintings of tables of numbers. Among them are works from a series called “73” – squares of joyful colors on canvas depicting, numerically, the consecutive years stretching from Reeb’s birth in 1952 to 2012, the year he painted the series. Yet, one number is missing from the canvas – 1973, the year of the Yom Kippur War, a traumatic event in Israel’s collective memory. And, as the series alludes, a significant component in the painter’s perception of his own personal chronology – Reeb, an IDF soldier in regular army service at the time, fought and was injured in that war.
Close to the last chapter of the exhibition, three other paintings also take us back to that war. The alluring, deep-colored images of underwater view are disrupted by the words “Napalm” and “Arik eats children.”
In 2001, the director of the Tel Aviv Museum at the time, the late Moti Omer, removed these paintings from their display at a group exhibition just before it opened. Ariel (Arik) Sharon was undeniably the man named in the paintings, and Omer argued that it would be improper to criticize a prime minister in office.
“At the time I was upset, not so much because he had refused to show the works,” Reeb says, “but because he said to me that if I told the press he would deny it.” Reeb became even further distressed when, although he revealed the details of the conversation to the press and it was published, “it passed quietly.” So quietly that Omer did not even bother to deny it.
Those paintings, Reeb tells me, actually commenced as a memory of sheer beauty.
“When I started painting them, I didn’t intend to add those words,” he recalls to The Jerusalem Report. “I thought I would do a beautiful underwater view and I remembered how, when I was in Ras Muhammad during my army service, I marveled at the underwater shelf there where you get thousands of colors and beautiful forms of life.”
This experience, by a young soldier visiting the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula – occupied by Israel in 1967 and returned to Egypt in 1982 after the peace treaty between the two states, “reflected, I thought, the most beautiful thing I have seen,” he says. “And then I thought of how not long after, in ’73, I once saw a plane bombing a column of tanks. So, no matter how terrible, that’s another beautiful thing I saw. And thinking about napalm, I thought of the First Lebanon War in 1982, and then about Ariel Sharon. It was like free association.”
This perception, which outlines the clash between the craving for beauty and the abyss of estrangement, is just as present in the works that are at the core of the exhibition. There are paintings and videos of images filmed at weekly demonstrations by Palestinian villagers in the West Bank. Reeb has been documenting the demonstrations since 2005.
“Painting,” he reminds me when I ask him about working with photographed images – often ones that depict acts of violence or their results, “is about the act of painting, and the materials are like life materials. There are paintings about where I live, about what is happening, and I try to choose my materials in a way that seems to me realistic. Not to romanticize things.”
But, he stresses, “the act of painting, the series of actions that make the painting, is, for me, a kind of play – a kind of a storytelling about how the painting was made. So, besides whatever the representation is about, the paintings tell different kinds of stories.” A painting, he continues, is, therefore, “always more like any other painting” – be it of a life image, a photographed one or an abstract – “than it is like a photograph.”
When I ask Reeb about the dilemmas around bringing such political works into the sterile space of the museum, he says that, indeed, the aspects of a museum as a place of entertainment or the way that exhibiting there might enhance the commercial value of artworks addressing the suffering of people he knows and with whom he is friends are an inherent part of this exhibition.
“There are contradictions involved.
Certainly,” he says. “And a lot of my work is about these contradictions – especially this series of paintings. Among other things, it’s about commoditization of such art and about whether one can represent political experience and the people involved in it in this way. And so on and so forth. But these are necessary kinds of contradiction. I don’t feel that in a museum I should show only pretty art that makes people feel good and nothing else.”
REEB’S PARENTS were members of the South African branch of Hashomer Hatza’ir, a Zionist-Socialist youth movement, and came to Israel in 1947. Reeb was born in Ramat Gan and when he was three years old the family – including his older brother – moved to England for three years so his father, who was among the founders of the IDF’s manpower section, could complete his studies. After returning to Israel, they moved to Ramat Hasharon, just north of Tel Aviv. On completing his military service, Reeb studied at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. His diverse oeuvre as an artist already has earned him two previous solo exhibitions in the Tel Aviv Museum. The current one follows his winning of the 2013 Rappaport Prize for an Established Israeli Artist.
Reeb lives in Tel Aviv with his wife Michal Goldman, who also is an artist. The couple has two sons, both in their 20s. Reeb makes a living as an artist but, he replies to my question, “I’m selling a lot less than I used to.” That, he says, is partly because of the state of the market and partly because of the way his political views are being perceived. “It’s not that the more strongly I criticize, the better the sales are,” he dispels a common myth about leftist Israeli artists.
The gap between the vibrant paintings and their grim subjects – violence, pain and grief – is so effective that only on a second visit to the exhibition did I realize that although I had thought of them all as explicitly multicolored, some of the most dramatic works are actually gray-scaled.
“For me,” he gently comments, “black and white are also colors.”
In contrast to his vivid and powerful works, in person, Reeb comes across as almost shy. But the emphasis on precision is as present in his speech as it is in his artwork – he speaks quietly, stops to choose one word over another and, sometimes, returns back to topics he had addressed previously to make sure his nuances came through. A conversation with Reeb may not be the easiest chat to transcribe from the tape recorder, but is it definitely insightful and engaging. In the past four years, his documentation mainly focuses on demonstrations in Nebi Saleh, a Palestinian village north of Jerusalem. “I try to go there every Friday,” he says. The village’s spring was taken over by settlers from a neighboring settlement in 2009 and the villagers’ insistence in protesting against the loss has cost them in human lives.
In 2011, Mustafa Tamini, 28, was killed during a demonstration after being hit by a tear-gas grenade fired by an IDF soldier.
Less than a year later, another protester, Rushdi Tamimi, 30, was shot during at a violent demonstration and died a few days later. Reeb’s exhibition includes videos showing Mustafa Tamimi’s death, and a 2009 incident in the village of Bili’in when demonstrator Bassem Abu Rahma, 30, was killed after being hit by a tear-gas grenade.
“Reeb’s videos are possibly the crudest, most acerbic, unendurable body of work in the history of Israeli art,” writes critic Itamar Levi in the exhibition’s catalogue.
“They defy all the laws of aesthetics. Once again we have to ask: Is this art? And the answer is: Yes, this is art, an extension of the notion of art or a protest against it.
Concurrently, it is also a counter-argument inquiring: How can one create any other kind of art here in this place? How can ‘normal’ art be created in this country, as if we were just another normal place where artists make art?” Outside the art space of the museum, Reeb uploads the videos to a YouTube channel. The challenge they pose to the viewer is undoubtedly not one-sided. Not all of them are pleasant for the Israeli ear.
In a video from July, a girl is chanting, “Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea.”
I asked Reeb how he copes, emotionally, with such slogans.
“I agree with the purpose of the demonstration, which is to draw attention to the situation of the village. The purpose is to protest against these issues and to prevent more land from being taken over, a process that has been happening for a long time in many places,” he says.
“I’m recording the demonstration, and I support the demonstration. I can’t say I subscribe to every slogan. But I don’t feel that this is a reason for me not to go or to document the demonstrations or to try and assist in a struggle I feel is a just one. I don’t feel that these kids or their parents, or the demonstrations are any kind of a threat to Israel. I feel very strongly that Israel’s army and the settlements should not be where the demonstrations are taking place anyway. I don’t think there is any immediate prospect of a Palestinian state replacing Israel.”
With the outbreak of the current fighting in Gaza, Reeb began documenting the antiwar demonstrations in Tel Aviv. He speaks carefully of the outbreak of rage, racism and outright violence against criticizers of the war, a trend that has swept Israel in recent weeks. “I think,” he says, “that today they unfortunately represent a bigger part of Israeli society than they used to, even though they are still marginal. But they do represent a bigger group of people that share many of their opinions.”
After the interview has ended, we return to the basement café – this time for a cup of coffee. Reeb noted sadly that he fears that the IDF’s Operation Protective Edge will deteriorate into regional chaos.
Some days later, in the aftermath of another anti-war demonstration in Tel Aviv, his video camera witnessed a group of a few dozen young men and women, wrapped in blue and white Israeli flags, protesting against the leftist rally.
“Death to Arabs,” they chanted merrily. In the background, a single voice – apparently of another pro-war demonstrator, was urging them to stop. “No,” it begged desperately, “No, no, no.”