Eye candy

Tel Aviv's GINA gallery offers a look at the shiny happy world of na?ve art.

Tutti-Fruiti 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Tutti-Fruiti 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
According to several college textbooks on mass communication, the most irritating advertising is often the most effective. While people enjoy clever ads, they tend to forget them quickly. An annoying jingle, on the other hand, echoes in one's mind forever. Some 30 years ago, for example, a company called Sara Lee that marketed its dessert cakes in US supermarkets ran TV and radios ads that loudly sang, "Everybody doesn't like something, but nobody doesn't like Sara Lee!" That jingle came roaring from the murky depths of memory recently as Metro visited a Tel Aviv gallery full of a kind of art that nobody doesn't like. Walk through the door at 255 Rehov Dizengoff and you have entered GINA, the Gallery of International Naïve Art, an unexpected world of art quite unlike anything most of us have ever seen. The first thing that strikes you as you gaze around the room is the wild array of bright colors that seem to be bursting out of the paintings. No somber tones, no subtle shading and no minimalism of any kind; just spectacularly bright colors that illuminate almost childlike, easy-to-understand scenes. The next thing you notice is something about the scenes themselves. While the paintings seem to depict all kinds of people doing all kinds of things, both the people and the situations are all - uniformly and without exception - happy. Whether from Belgium or Brazil, Honduras or Hungary, Nicaragua or Romania, El Salvador or even Israel, the subjects are unapologetically amusing and everyone seems to be having a marvelous time. GINA owner Dan Chill, 63, explains, "Naïve art is not only enchantingly innocent and easy to understand, but also creates an idealized view of the world. You're not looking at reality, but rather what the artist would hope or dream the reality to be. You look at a painting of a rural village somewhere in Brazil and realize that there's no way the place could be as beautiful, as appealing or as inviting as the artist depicts it to be." Sure enough, even a desultory look at the paintings reveals nothing but happy people and often whimsically funny situations. Smiling people picnic, dance, play musical instruments, work in their gardens and perform household chores - all going about their business in an obviously good mood. Smiling fishermen walk along seaside market streets holding their freshly-caught fish in the air, and the fish are smiling also, evidently happy to be caught. Grinning girls with baskets of sliced watermelon on their heads stroll by people hanging clothes, trimming hedges, watering flowers, drinking coffee and feeding chickens - all smiling, including the chickens. And everything that is depicted, right down to the last blade of grass, shines from the canvas in bright, rich colors. One artist's childlike exuberance is even too big for his painting to contain : the riot of colors virtually explodes out of the canvas and onto the surrounding wooden frame. The paintings are also completely lacking in irony; sadness or anger are nowhere to be seen. There are no serious statements, no political slants. Rural peasants pick fruit, plow fields and bale hay, but they do so in exquisitely beautiful surroundings, their faces illuminated with expressions of almost smug contentment. Anyone looking for underground art by proverbially oppressed but courageous artists must look elsewhere. These "naïve" paintings depict places you would love to go, and people you wouldn't mind living with. What exactly is "naïve art?" Chill explains: "Naïve art, or "naïvism" as we call it, is a genre - just like Impressionism, Expressionism, and all the others. And in that genre there are many different styles. Just like in Impressionism there may be Monet, Renoir and Cézanne, in naïve art there are many different artists and many different styles. They come from different countries, and sometimes the culture of those countries impacts the way the artist paints, and sometimes there is really no connection between the culture and the way the artist paints." Chill continues: "Naïve art is a genre that has certain basic characteristics. And those include an enchanting innocence. The paintings are very easy to understand. If you're looking at a painting and a big question mark pops up above your head, you're not looking at a naïve artwork. Naïve art does not require an international psychiatric art critic to explain to you what you're seeing or why you should like what you're looking at. Rather, your heart and soul tells you why you like what you're looking at." Chill says that another criterion that defines naïve art is that the artist is self-taught. "Some people say that's a requirement, but I would just call it a normal characteristic. There are some artists who have undergone training and notwithstanding that training have managed to overcome it to paint in a very heartwarming, heartfelt way which doesn't go in accordance with the traditional art world. The naïve artist ignores the traditional rules of perspective and scale. He or she has his own idiosyncratic scale and almost childlike perspective. He depicts what his heart feels, what his heart is singing out. He dips his brush in his heart." And finally, another characteristic of naïve art is what Chill calls the artist's "punctilious detail." He says, "We sometimes ask the naïve artist, 'Why was it important for you to paint all the 1,350 leaves on that tree? Wouldn't it have been enough to paint 100 leaves? We would have gotten the idea that this is a tree.' And they answer in a very naïve way, 'If I don't paint all 1,350 leaves, to me that is not a tree.'" Do naïve artists resent being called "naïve"? "No, says Chill, "because originally they were called 'primitives.' They resented that much more. So "naïve" was chosen as an acceptable term to describe their innocence, their idea of painting directly from the heart, and their idealized view of life." Trained as an attorney, fastidiously dressed, his neat senior executive haircut covered with a crocheted kippa, Chill at first appears as an unlikely seeker of art from the wilds of El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Brazil. How did he come to this? Although his mother was sixth-generation Israeli, Chill was born in Miami Beach, Florida on VJ Day, the last day of World War II. His father, born in New York, immigrated in 1927 and worked for a while on Kibbutz Degania. He later became a clothing manufacturer in Jerusalem, where he married Chill's mother. As General Erwin Rommel's army was threatening British-occupied Palestine from the South and German Panzer divisions in Turkey were threatening from the north, Chill's parents and two-year-old sister left for the US. After his parents were killed in an automobile accident in 1953, Chill and his sister were brought up by an aunt in New York. Educated at NYU and Harvard Law School, Chill became a lawyer, doing a lot of legal work for Jewish organizations. That, and six generations of ancestral life in Israel coursing though his blood, eventually prompted him to bring his wife and two children on aliya in 1975. Chill would probably still be enjoying a highly successful career in corporate law had he not been exposed to some very unusual paintings on a 1983 business visit to Tegucigalpa, Honduras. After a rough day of contract negotiations on behalf of Israel Aircraft Industries, he and Moshe Keret, IAI's CEO, noticed a small gallery across the street from their hotel. "There were paintings in the window that drew our attention. We liked what we saw and went in. We began talking with the proprietor. I became very interested. Moshe eventually became far less interested," Chill recalls. "But I continued talking with the proprietor and found out that we were looking at Honduran naïve art. It resonated within me - the feeling of warmth and happiness." He bought a painting that day, brought it home and put it on the wall, with the enthusiastic approval of his wife and friends. From that day on, whenever he traveled to another country on behalf of IAI, Chill would set aside a bit of time to look for any local naïve art. Over the course of time, he began to collect naïve art from countries all over the world and putting them up on the walls of his house. "At some point in time, after I had put together a major collection of naïve art, people came into our house. The postman, a very good friend, a family member or whoever. And instead of talking about the weather, or politics or family matters, they'd start talking about what they saw on the walls. So when it happened the first, second or third time, I figured that people were trying to be polite or just find something to talk about. When it happened the 20th time, I said to myself, 'Wait a second. There's something about what's on my walls that seems to be speaking to the hearts of people the way they speak to my heart.' I thought I was the only crazy person infatuated with this genre, but I saw that it resonated in the hearts of many people." Chill decided that the time had come for him to assume the role of "Dan - not Don - Quixote" on behalf of naïve art. He saw it as his mission to bring works of naïve art from all over the world and display its strengths as a genre, with greater depth and diversity than anyone had previously imagined - particularly those who associated the term "naïve art" with only Henri Rousseau and Anna Mary Robertson ("Grandma") Moses, the genre's two most famous artists. Thus was born Chill's major raison d'etre, the Gallery of International Naïve Art. "This gallery covers the world of naïve art, rather than concentrating on one or two countries. There are other naïve art galleries in the world, but each one concentrates on a particular country. GINA, when it started five years ago, became the first gallery in the world established to show everyone what naïve art is all about," he says. And, according to Chill, the results have been far beyond his expectations. "We opened our doors in December 2003 and very quickly became a sensation. More people came in and have continued to come in and visit this gallery than any other gallery in the history of Israel. And over the course of our five years, we've had 30 to 50 people a day coming into the gallery, and we have sold an average of one to two paintings a day. That's something I don't think any other gallery in the history of Israel can claim." Chill claims surprisingly little credit for the gallery's success - a success which recently encouraged him to open a sister gallery in New York, despite the current economic downturn. According to him, it's all about the paintings. "This is simply a genre that everyone falls in love with. Despite the mounting pressures and problems around the world, here are paintings that resonate inside you, that warm your heart and make you feel good. The naïve world is perfect, it is Camelot, and naïve art is a festive celebration of the human narrative." GINA's current exhibit, appropriately titled "Naïvism: Celebrating the Human Narrative," features around 40 different artists from 15 different countries and runs to the middle of March. Address: 255 Dizengoff Street, Tel Aviv. (03) 544-4150; www.ginagallery.com.