Culture: Turning a street into an inspired body of work

A prizewinning young artist helps us to interpret the world around us.

'Painting Habima Black.’ (photo credit: ALMA ITZHAKY/PHOTOS ELAD SHARIG)
'Painting Habima Black.’
Iudeaea Navalis (Yehuda Hayamit) is the name of the street in Jaffa that artist Alma Itzhaky lives on.
It is also the title of her series of paintings currently on display at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art that won her the Rappaport Prize for a young artist in 2014.
Each year the Rappaport Family foundation awards two artists – one young and one established – a grant and a solo exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum a year after the prize is awarded. The purpose of the prize is to encourage young artists to push the boundaries of contemporary art with new and fresh ideas.
This body of work features 35 original large-scale paintings depicting intimate and fleeting glimpses of Itzhaky’s everyday life in south Tel Aviv. Her work is presented alongside that of artist Ido Bar-El, the Rapaport prizewinner for an established artist.
Itzhaky was born in 1984 and has spent her entire life working, learning and living in the city. Active in the Israeli art scene for over a decade, her medium of choice is oil paints. Her style has its roots in the tradition of figurative painting and strives to relate this tradition to an Israeli context. A lover of learning gifted with the ability to paint from an early age, she earned a Fine Art degree from Midrasha Faculty of the Arts at Beit Berl College at the age of 21 and went on to complete her master’s degree in philosophy at Tel Aviv University.
Alma Itzhaky (photo credit: Courtesy)
From this creative and educational base she has produced images so unique and striking that they earned her the coveted prize.
The paintings Itzhaky offers her audience are the culmination of work spanning three years. As she explains, “I do not work thematically and I don’t have a concept in mind, but I do work and paint in my studio. The curator [Noa Rosenberg] and I chose works that tended to focus on the things that are close to me, such as my immediate environment.”
Itzhaky achieves something in her paintings that transcends the standard expectations of contemporary art and painting. In a time when most artists are inclined to reflect their realities through the photographic medium, painting somehow became the medium in which artists reflect their inner subjectivity.
She had to really connect with her environment so that she could return to her studio and create each of her works.
As she describes: “I do try to be objective, it’s less about me and more about the world. I paint what I can and how I can, it’s not really a matter of choice.”
Although these images evoke a feeling of snapshots celebrating the daily life of the working class and the ecstasy of the mundane that has been prevalent in classical documentary photography and even in photojournalism, Itzhaky mentions that she did not want this work to have any basis in photography: “One of my major decisions when I started doing my mature work is to give up photography as a reference. It started as a technical decision, because I don’t like taking photos and I don’t enjoy working with photographs on a technical level. I decided to try and paint without [photography] and it turned out to have a great influence on my work because it connected me more with my immediate environment.”
During the three years it took her to complete the content of this exhibition, each of these paintings underwent a long and arduous process of building and refining the composition within the canvas. Her main goal was to tap into the sensations of these moments that she was attempting to recreate.
“I try to bring out less of the subjective and more of a physical presence. All tactile and bodily impressions like the smells, the heat and the lighting – I bring all of that into my work.
When I paint from memory, the sensation is more real.”
This is apparent in nearly all of her works as she creates dreamlike visual interpretations of the world unfolding around her. One of her pieces, Tel Aviv District, depicts a scene that she witnessed. “A man and a woman were sitting in this position for a long while. I do not know anything about them, or what the meaning of the gesture was. Part of what caught my attention was that the scene was ambiguous and could be interpreted in different ways,” Itzhaky explains.
'Outside Tel Aviv' (photo credit: ALMA ITZHAKY/PHOTOS ELAD SHARIG)
The inspiration for Painting Habima Black came from the tent protests of 2011, where demonstrators planned to paint the Tel Aviv square black as a form of protest. “Luckily it was never carried out. I thought it would make a dubious political statement, but a good painting.”

Viewers are able to transport themselves into each of these works, be it by the use of bold color schemes or by the expressive brush strokes that are used to create larger-than-life representations of the people that are placed squarely in the foreground in a way that almost dwarfs the almost liquefied background.
Her hometown isn’t the only inspiration Itzhaky finds to bring to her works. “I am really absorbed in painting and art history and I spend a lot of my time looking at paintings from all historical periods. It sounds weird to people that my influences come from old paintings.” She says she finds most of her inspiration from the pre-Renaissance period, 14th-century northern Renaissance and Gothic paintings. “These works appear very secular in their everydayness, but also hold deeply religious meanings. There is something ecstatic, and this connection is very strong for me. I call them ecstatic because they refer to the everyday but there is nothing casual or ordinary about them.”
Taking inspiration from the works of Hieronymus Bosch, Bruegel and Robert Campin, she finds the combination of mundane and even vulgar elements – together with a deeply religious component – moves her towards creating her current works.
'Noon prayer outside the garage.’ (photo credit: ALMA ITZHAKY/PHOTOS ELAD SHARIG)
As for how life has changed for Itzhaky after receiving this prize and her solo show, she says, “I feel very lucky to get this prize, I can’t complain. There was a time when I finished art school and had three years of working alone in my studio with no prospects. But it was a very important time as an artist because it allowed me to be very true to myself, just knowing that this is what I do. Even if I find out that things don’t work out, this is what I do. I think, if you keep doing your thing, you will find a place for your work.”
What can we look forward to next? The artist remains optimistic: “I still have more work up my sleeve.”
The exhibition closes on January 31, 2016.