Tangled Expressions

Jerusalem’s fourth biennale for drawing reveals both the confusion and energy in Israeli society.

art (photo credit: Hila Lulu Lin)
(photo credit: Hila Lulu Lin)
THE THEME AND SUBTITLE of Traces IV, Jerusalem’s fourth biennale for drawing in Israel, has been translated into English as “Caught in the Thicket.”
The Hebrew word for thicket, svach, also means tangle or confusion, and suggests a wider psychological, social or political implication: being caught in a tangle of confusion rather aptly describes the way many Israelis seem to be feeling at the moment. But a thicket is also a place of vigorous growth – and that is an excellent description of the local art scene.
Tamar Manor Friedman is the chief curator of this exhibition, which spreads over five venues in Jerusalem; she is the sole curator of the largest of these venues, located in the Artists’ House (Beit HaOmanim) in downtown Jerusalem.
In the catalogue, Manor Friedman writes that “the spirit of svach is woven into the creative act since Genesis – from the chaos that existed before the Creation.” But the actual word is first used in the Bible when Abraham finds a ram caught in a thicket as he is about to sacrifice his son Isaac. The internal conflict, a test of faith, sacrifice and redemption in the thicket, is, says Manor Friedman, a metaphor for Israeli art, caught from the start in the local thicket: “The yearned for, conflicted place that demands an innocent sacrifice.”
The viewer may be surprised – as I certainly was – to find that the latest drawing biennale includes not only painting but photography, video, installation and sculpture. This requires a certain stretch of the imagination, and a willingness to buy into the idea that line can take many forms. The vitality of the work at the Artists’ House is based on the vitality of the line, and on the freshness of discovery that comes from scribbling, or sticking things together. So although much of the work is not – by any means – straight drawing, it does exhibit the kind of raw inventiveness that is at the heart of drawing.
RUTI MALUL-ZADKA, DIRECTOR of the Artists’ House, tells The Jerusalem Report that the biennale for drawing was established at the beginning of the decade because of a perceived need to encourage drawing at a time when it was overshadowed by video and photography.
Now the situation has changed: drawing and painting have been reinstated in local art and no longer need special protection and boundaries have been eased.
It is gratifying to find established artists side by side with new names. Some of the veterans are historical landmarks, including Itzhak Danziger, Moshe Kupferman and Aviva Uri, and their works, sizzling with life and immediacy, compete easily with the passion of artists young enough to be their grandchildren.
The much celebrated Moshe Gershuni, whose retrospective is currently at the Tel Aviv Museum, proves his strength and originality yet again with a recent work where watery pigment has been allowed to soak through layers of tissue paper and staples are used as part of the composition.
Two informal ink drawings on rough paper by Yehudit Sasportas are illuminating.
Sasportas represented Israel at the 2007 Venice Biennale and is known for her meticulous, technical paintings and videos – where the structure is complex, the inspiration comes from many sources, and the result is always crisp and elegant – but here we see the creative intuition that lies behind the work.
Manor Friedman tells The Report that she was aware of the need to adapt this exhibition to the unusual space of the Artists’ House – a beautiful stone building that was once an Arab residence – because of its small galleries and historic atmosphere. Appropriately, she starts with the art nouveau drawings of Ephraim Moses Lilien, often called the first Zionist artist and known for his portraits of Theodor Herzl, who was his close friend. Lilien visited Palestine at the beginning of the last century, helped Boris Schatz to establish the Bezalel Art School in this building and become one of its first teachers. One of his posters shows a religious Diaspora Jew huddled in a corner while the angel of Zionism points the way to Israel.
According to Manor Friedman, it was commonly said at the time that the traditional Jews of Poland were bound in a thicket of thorns, and that becoming a Zionist was the only way they could possibly liberate themselves.
BEYOND THE INDIVIDUAL artists, it is the pure visual excitement of this exhibition and its relevance to Israel that makes it feel like an adventure for the viewer. Zvi Tolkovsky’s “Via Dolorosa” is an amalgam – or thicket – of imagery that includes drawings based on familiar stencil graffiti seen around Jerusalem (such as that ubiquitous man with a pipe), along with helicopters, Mickey Mouse ears and people in gas masks, interspersed with bits of text.
A mass of heads, a mass of lines or dots, becomes a thicket. Strange flora and unrestrained foliage suggest germination and growth rather than landscape. The juxtaposition of works that relate to each other in terms of style or subject matter suggests a developing narrative: the exhibition invites you to pick up the clues.
A charcoal drawing by Riva Pinsky Awadish that looks like a wicker basket turns out to be a skirt, but either way the vigorous, weaving lines are its strength. A figure nestles inside what looks like an underground construction site in “Rest” by David Isaacs and here the line is scratched through a layer of thick paint, tearing and crumpling the paper.
Hila Lulu Lin draws a delicate line on silk paper, showing a decorative but venomouslooking plant in the act of reproducing itself, an image loaded with metaphor.
It was a strange, almost apocalyptic experience to come upon Gal Weinstein’s “Ignition” while the catastrophic fire in the Carmel Forest was blazing in December. (The exhibition opened two days after the fire started.) Weinstein had made a drawing using strands of steel wool on paper and had set fire to it in order to video the line as it sparks, flares and flickers its way around the page, or screen – eerily evocative of a bush fire.
But it is Sharon Poliakine who dominates the show with a fascinating conceptual work in two parts – a small 3D structure and a large ink line drawing of the structure, hanging side by side. Seen on its own, the drawing looks like a crowded boatload of exhausted survivors at the end of a terrible voyage – or dead bodies with bowed heads, bound together and strapped to the masthead. Or it could be a tree like one from Goya’s “Disasters of War,” where victims with mutilated torsos are mounted on the branches. Goya’s etchings – made on the spot during the Spanish insurrection against Napoleon between 1810 and 1820 – remain the most powerful anti-war images, and a touchstone for contemporary artists.
The structure that forms the subject of Poliakine’s drawing, however, is just an assemblage of artist’s tools tied together. The limbless corpses are actually half-used tubes of paint supported by pencils; the tree or masthead is a piece of wooden stretcher and a paintbrush.
Shown together, the drawing and assemblage set up a dialogue that raises questions about art, war and victimhood – and makes the viewer wonder at how a drawing of paint tubes can provoke an emotional response.
Finally, it is the interconnection and crosspollination between the works that give this exhibition its verve, rather than individual pieces, fine though many are – which must be attributed to the the success of Manor Friedman’s curatorship.
‘Traces IV: Caught in the Thicket’ continues at the Jerusalem Artists’ House through January 29.