Confidence in intuition

For painter Amnon Ben-Ami, art derives from restlessness, not from having something to say.

amnon ben-ami art 248 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
amnon ben-ami art 248 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Painter Amnon Ben-Ami is a reticent man. All day long he deals with paint, ideas, subject matter, though he sometimes says to himself that he doesn't really care about the details. As we speak, he reclines on a pillow at the top gallery of his studio in Talpiot overlooking the Holy Land complex and Teddy Stadium, smoking cigarettes intermittently. He explains that he usually works quickly, an approach that has to do with immediacy. "I do what I do, and then I put it aside," says the 54-year-old artist. "If you came here in two weeks or if you'd come here two weeks ago, you'd see completely different paintings on the wall." Ben-Ami's work is both conceptual and formal, free and exact. He incorporates comic lines, simplistic drawings and shapes with skilled painterly care and concern. His works are connected with trying to understand the difference between visual and intellectual thought. "The source of the word 'idea,' in Plato, has to do with a shape, with something visual," he explains. "In today's lingual world, 'idea' is more connected to words than sight." He wonders whether there's a way that this double meaning could still function in its original way. "When I speak of a shape, do I also speak about its idea?" These are the kinds of abstract ontological questions that are behind the outwardly ordinary subject matter that one sees in Ben-Ami's paintings. He comes back to these subjects after years sometimes. One example is his recent painting Shower. He explains that he's had several works connected with the bathroom, shower, shampoo. "More and more, I have confidence in intuition," he says. "I feel like working with shampoo, and it sits comfortably in my mind for some time - an hour, a week, a year. I don't look for further justification." In fact, he says that slowly the opposite becomes true: If he has some sort of justification, it repulses him. "Because there can be no justification for painting." Once the subject "sits comfortably" for a certain period, the notion of immediacy returns. In the case of Shower, Ben-Ami further delved into this notion by working from a photograph that he also calls "Shower" and that he also considers a work of its own. In terms of the painting itself, he says he sometimes worked from the photo and sometimes from memory. "It isn't clear to me which one is more immediate," he muses. Ben-Ami's work is concerned not just with the physical process of making a single painting but with the process of creation that relates to meaning and the way that meaning develops from one act to another. He recently finished a series of four interrelated paintings. The first painting, on a strip of paper 30 x 70 cm., is a painting he called Mountains, in plain raw umber and white. He says he had the Sinai Mountains in mind while painting but that the work itself is "figurative" and doesn't relate to those mountains specifically. Then he painted a complementary work in the same format, an abstract blue-and-white work with medium-width brushes and stormy but contained strokes. While painting it, he had the sea in mind; but when he was done, he looked again and changed the idea from sea to pool, a subject he had used in previous works. Formally and conceptually, the shift is significant. While a rectangular painting called "Sea" implies a partial view of an uncontainable body of water, one called "Pool" incorporates the shape of the painting itself. The borders of the painting are no longer part of the limited space of the material but part of the shape of the painted object. "For me, the change is something significant," he says. When asked whether the viewer in an art gallery will have access to this change, he counters that "Not everything fundamental [to the work, to the artist] is in the final art show." The piece then developed into two further paintings incorporating a wide umber frame around a blue rectangular center, both of them called Pool in the Mountains. When Paul Cézanne's painting The Bathers comes up as part of a separate conversation, Ben-Ami points to his Pool in the Mountains and is surprised he hadn't considered the connection before. "We're sometimes influenced by artists without knowing it," he says, "by the whole history of art. We can be influenced by an artist who was himself influenced by someone, and so we're influenced by something of which we're not always conscious - or don't always want to be." IF ONE were to put Ben-Ami on a spectrum between two painters, one could place him somewhere between Los Angeles-based Ed Ruscha and East Coaster Philip Guston. His visual vocabulary is closer to Guston's, his thinking method closer to Ruscha's. His images, though, are more exact than Guston's, more formally playful than Ruscha's. But Ben-Ami doesn't see these connections or even necessarily agree with them. When speaking of Ruscha, he refers not to his paintings but to his black-and-white photographs of gas stations. "The gas station is an excellent subject matter," he says, but then immediately qualifies his statement. "Even this is a contradiction. I can say that a gas station is a great subject matter or I can say that you can paint anything and that the essence of your work will rise from there." This type of paradoxical or contradictory thinking imbues much of Ben-Ami's reflection. It extends even to his notion of living and working in Jerusalem. "On the one hand, I know that every studio, every city, every country you live in somehow penetrates your work. On the other hand, the geography, where I live, is not the source of my work; it doesn't matter to me in terms of my work." Ben-Ami was born in Kibbutz Alumot and eventually came to Jerusalem. "I have no patriotic feelings in regard to this city," he says. But when he wanted to study art, he knew the only place for him was the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, from which he graduated in 1986. "As a student, you're already an artist," he says; "and as an artist, you never really finish being a student." He says he had to tackle a lot of information in art school, both about art history and contemporary art, and describes being in contact with students and instructors as a model art world that "shows you a little bit of who you are." After graduating from Bezalel, Ben-Ami received the 1998 Ministry of Education and Culture Prize for a Young Artist. He went on to show regularly in Israel and abroad, taking part in exhibitions in Seoul and New York, and received a grant from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Last year, he received the Ministry of Science, Culture and Sport Prize for Encouraging Artists 35 years and older. Ben-Ami repeatedly returns to the relationship between words and shapes - the idea. It's something that is at the core of his activities. He keeps notebooks in which he writes and sketches, and he has published his writing in independent publications as a student and afterwards. Hegel's book Philosophies of Art and Beauty lies open before him, marked up with blue pen. He is looking at the metaphysics of Hegel, who writes about art inspiring men to emotions and enlarging the "cleavage in their feelings and passions." Ben-Ami is interested in "his dialectics," he says, "their constantly changing directions, which have one major forward trend leading to something sublime." When asked whether he agrees that his work is in part conceptual, Ben-Ami is quick to differentiate between the art-historical movement of Conceptualism and the broader idea of conceptualism as it relates to humans in general. "Maybe you feel it in me as a whole, not just as an artist, and so it surfaces when you look at my work." He returns to the image of the bathroom. "If I draw a circle, then it's not a shower. But if I add some dots, then it is." Again, the distinction between idea as word and idea as shape arises. "If you just have a letter, then you don't have the idea. But if you add some letters, a word forms." He explains that it has happened more than once that what's clear to him is not clear to others. "It's like unclear handwriting." We turn our attention to another group of three of his recent paintings, Brains, Brains and Noses, and Noses. Like Pool in the Mountains, these paintings were generated in an interrelated way. It started with two stains that Ben-Ami saw on a piece of plastic tarp that he used as a canvas for a different painting. The stains reminded him of brains, and he recreated those stains as brains on a separate piece of paper. Unlike his approach to most of his paintings, which are done quickly, he returned to his painting three times, changing the colors and eventually adding a nose on either side. He then painted a separate piece with just two brains, and finally a third with just three noses. "The body is something I've worked with since Bezalel," he says, showing images of past works that have incorporated images of the spine, the utricle and saccule (inner ear organs that sense equilibrium) or the lymphatic systems of the arm and foot. "Sometimes the subject matter is a burden," says Ben-Ami, "but then art is a burden altogether, sometimes." He says that one possible reason is that the main element of art is negation - a position between the intellect and emotion. "It all comes from a kind of emptiness," he says. The question connects to a deeper problematic: What to paint. "Were the stains I saw on that material really so successful [as brains], or was I in a state of mind that said, 'That's fine'? You can paint realistically: What you see is what you paint. But I couldn't stick to this problematic. I was forced to bring in the noses. It's a lot of vicious circles." He unravels the idea further: "Formalism never stays in the formal. The choice of shapes and colors is not isolated from non-formal questions. Maybe colors fulfill something archaic, cultural." For Ben-Ami, these distinctions and relations are the core of creation. "Art, whether it's writing or painting, is the hopeless trials to designate these relations between ideas and words - the substance in the most abstract sense and the finished bodies on the other." He underscores the fact that this is not a logical position. "Making art is a behavior," he says, "and movement comes from tension or discomfort, from something not being at rest." Half jokingly, he suggests that it's this restlessness - "intellectual, psychological, emotional, it's a mixture" - that drives people to make art and less the fact that they have something to say. "One is never satisfied. It's an unfinished business. This is how I see art-making: infinite and unsolved problematics."