Up against a wall

Tired of being shunned by established galleries, lesser-known artists in Tel Aviv are no longer waiting for invitations to show their work.

art gallery 88 248 (photo credit: Mya Guarnieri)
art gallery 88 248
(photo credit: Mya Guarnieri)
Slapped over the graffiti and posters that decorate an abandoned building on otherwise glossy Dizengoff is an advertisement - in plain typeface on plain white paper - for "Desert Life," the first exhibition of a new artists' collective. The homegrown advertisement mirrors both the space and the spirit of the exhibition, it is do-it-yourself. Just steps away from Rothschild Boulevard's art scene, which has been abuzz with international attention, this group of artists is attempting to carve out their own space both literally and figuratively. Entering the exhibition on Herzl Street is a bit of a surprise - one doesn't expect to encounter dirt floors, plants dripping from overhead balconies, and the sounds of people going about their daily lives in an art gallery. Chick Corea drifts down into the gallery, resonating between the walls. This clearly isn't an ordinary space, but that's the point. Hidden from view, in the ground floor courtyard of a building noted for having Tel Aviv's first elevator, a few people are milling about - passersby drawn in by the banner that is draped over the façade of this quintessentially Tel Aviv building. Everything about this exhibition speaks to the fact that it stands apart from the bubble of the mainstream art world. "Desert Life" is the brainchild of the newly formed artists' group Break On, conceived by Hannah Rendell. A recent immigrant from London, Rendell found it hard to plug in to the creative community when she arrived in Israel. Looking to present her latest series of works, she found many galleries had a closed-door policy to new artists, particularly new immigrants. So she sought out other artists by networking. She sent out e-mails and scoured Facebook. She recalls with a chuckle that a friend of a friend responded, "You have to hang out in some cafes in Florentin to get into the scene." He didn't bother to look at her work. Rather than waiting for a break, she decided to join hands with other artists, immigrants as well as sabras, and make their own break. She turned again to e-mail, sending a message about her desire to found an artists' group. The response was overwhelming. "I received hundreds of e-mails," she recalls. The art was important, but ultimately she was looking for committed, passionate, hard workers. About the name "Break On" Rendell says: "I wanted something powerful, something like 'Kadima' - positive, not destructive." She emphasized that Break On is not trying to "put galleries down" but is simply finding a way to be less dependent on them. "What the galleries are doing is really important, but it is also important for artists to think they have power and agency over their own work." Looking at the art gracing the walls, it's hard to imagine that just months ago the space was filled with years of accumulated garbage that tenants had carelessly tossed from their windows. Rendell explains that a friend told Break On about the long-abandoned courtyard. "The space was filled with dead rats and dead birds," Rendell says. "It was absolutely hideous and it stunk. But we saw the potential immediately." The group went to work. Everyone pitched in their time and money - hauling out trash and painting over the blue and pink walls, giving them a clean coat of white. Though it's had a face-lift, the rough edges remain - and Break On likes that. The sandy floor is unintentional but serves as the perfect backdrop to "Desert Life," a series of works that take a conceptual look at man's survival and existence in the desert. All the work, which ranges from installations, sculpture, painting, photography and silkscreens, addresses aspects of life in Israel. Standing before one of her large canvases, Break On member Diana Brody speaks about the exhibition: "A lot of us have just made an exodus to the desert, from our homelands to Israel." Brody says her own art is "spatial, it's about how you perceive yourself in the desert - sometimes you feel as small as an ant but sometimes you feel so large, so expansive and you're rotating through these feelings." Visitors at the exhibit on a recent Saturday share their thoughts with Metro. Shira Nesher appreciates the fusing of contemporary art with a piece of Tel Aviv's history. Of the mainstream art scene in Tel Aviv, she says, "There's too much fashion and not enough content." Yuval Barel agrees. "The gallery world has become part of a culture of convenience. They exhibit art that looks good on the walls of your living room, art that doesn't make you think too much or feel too much." Barel, an artist himself, can relate to the sentiment that brought the members of Break On together. "We [artists] all grew up on the Cinderella story - we're waiting to see if the shoe fits. But this group is standing up and saying 'I'm Cinderella and I'm not waiting for the prince.'" DOGS, SOLDIERS, grandmothers and families with babies pack the Gebo Gallery on a Friday afternoon opening. A toddler trots away from his father and is caught seconds later, hitting a large red canvas with his small hand. Young couples sip red wine and discuss a sculpture of a voluptuous woman. The diversity of the crowd speaks to Gebo's philosophy - that the art scene should be accessible. Gebo is literally in the shadow of the mainstream - they are located within sight of Tel Aviv Museum, the epicenter of Israeli art. "The museum is very posh, very established, says Gebo co-owner Yohanan Herson, while his gallery seeks to provide a venue for artists who are "coming from the periphery." After all, Herson and his business partner, Marlen Ferrer, have come from the margins themselves. Though both Herson and Ferrer had experienced some degree of artistic success prior to opening Gebo, neither was firmly entrenched in the Israeli art scene. Herson explains that for the past five or six years, fresh graduates from schools such as Bezalel have dominated the galleries. While he acknowledges that these artists are quite talented, he says the result of the galleries' preference for youth-generated contemporary art is that "a lot of very talented artists over the age of 30 have found themselves excluded" from the scene. While Herson, who emigrated from Canada 30 years ago, wasn't entirely shut out of the art world - he'd had exhibitions both in and out of the country - he felt that his career was kept "on a low fire." "There are a lot of artists like that, I'm not unique in that aspect," he says. But what Herson decided to do in response to his situation was. Eager to make his own way, he sought to create a space where he could work as well as exhibit with other artists. A friend, Yeta Harnik, put Herson in touch with Ferrer - who immigrated to Israel from South Africa about the same time as Herson - and the two knew they shared an artistic vision. Another friend showed them the 200-square-meter space - tucked away underground - that eventually became Gebo. "It was just a black hole," Ferrer recalls. "But when I saw it, I felt like Cinderella with a magic wand. I saw the potential immediately." But unlike Cinderella, Ferrer wasn't donning a dress that was completely new to her - like Herson, she'd already done some exhibiting in Tel Aviv and "didn't feel like a total outsider." Still, she'd not been included in the mainstream in part due to her location - she made her home and studio in Kiryat Tivon - and in part due to her character. "My spiritual life was always more important to me than success." Her emphasis on substance also spilled over into her art, "Being in the studio was more important [to me] than being in the scene," she says. The scene that Gebo has created for this exhibition, "Women," is international and multicultural, including Ferrer's own work, previously undiscovered Israeli talent, as well as artists from the Far East. This inclusion of outsiders reflects, in part, Herson's identity. "I came from the outside," he says. "No matter how well-established I am, despite the fact that I did the army and speak perfect Hebrew and feel like an intrinsic part of the state [of Israel], I have no intention of giving up my outsider identity. It's part of being Jewish." For their next exhibition, which will begin in January, Herson and Ferrer plan to coat the walls of the gallery in brown paper. They will paint on these impromptu canvases. They don't feel limited by convention or labels - they've recently shown the digital sketches of Assi Dayan, who is known as an actor and not an artist. As Gebo approaches its second anniversary, Ferrer is still negotiating her role as a gallery owner. "Even though I'm part of the scene now," she says, "I still feel like a hillbilly." She feels that she retains an element of her naiveté, choosing to approach the gallery as a space where the emphasis is on art and the artistic process rather than as a place of business. "My dream is not to be one of the fashionable galleries but a living space - a contact for why we create art and not why we sell it." "OUR AGENDA is to show art and have a space that is for the street," says Adi Bezalel as she slides the glass door of the Alfred Gallery open. Dressed in Crocs, jeans, and a sweatshirt, she looks as comfortable in the Florentin space as she would at home. Indeed the gallery is a kind of home for her, she lives next door. "It's all for the street, all for the artists - I don't think other galleries have that," she says. Floor-to-ceiling windows allow the viewer to make immediate contact with the art. The space is open and inviting even to people of "all colors of the rainbow." Bezalel feels that galleries are often a space removed from the neighborhood, whereas Alfred Gallery is a place where people "come in and talk to us." Even those who have little background in art pop in "and ask really smart questions," says Bezalel. "It keeps us in touch with the ground, not just with the art world." Bezalel feels that it's an open-minded, dynamic atmosphere on both ends. Just as the passersby feel welcome to drop in, the artists welcome the feedback, using it to push their art further. "Each year is getting better," she says. This is the Alfred Gallery's third year both as a group and in the space. A friend of Bezalel's, who has since moved to New York City, was initially using the space as a studio, but decided she wanted to open it to the work of other artists as well as the public. So the two, along with several fellow graduates of the Midrasha, put together a show - this was the seed of the collective. They wanted to do another show, so they turned to their friends, and the small group grew into what became Alfred Gallery. Today, the 13-member cooperative is composed of artists from varying backgrounds, including the provocative Palestinian artist Raafat Hattab. They maintain the small minimalist gallery - with clean white walls and a cement floor - paying the monthly rent of NIS 230 per artist "out of pocket." A visitor immediately notes another difference from the mainstream galleries. A simple sign printed on white paper hangs on the wall by the reception desk stating that Alfred Gallery does not sell art. Instead, if a visitor is interested in purchasing a piece, he or she must contact the artist independently. "We all want to sell art, but it's not what we're thinking about… because we aren't commercial, [selling] doesn't influence the space." The line between the street and the gallery is blurry on a Thursday night opening. From a curbside table, Alfred Gallery serves wine and arak and the celebration flows easily between the neighborhood and the interior of the gallery itself. It's an intimate scene, which reflects the artist's intention for the new exhibition. The Alfred Gallery hopes to create an intimacy with art on a daily basis. Discussing her photographic lightboxes, Bezalel says this is the first time she has employed electricity in her art. "I'm trying to show work as an intimate object." She explains that the light allows viewers to see the art equally as well up close as they would from afar.