An artistic language

Nahum Tevet explores how objects are arranged in a given space and forces the viewer to change perspective.

An Artistic Language (photo credit: Elad Sarig)
An Artistic Language
(photo credit: Elad Sarig)
When spectators first engage with works by sculptor Nahum Tevet (b. 1946) their first reaction is usually to see them as a homage to or perhaps an extension of early Soviet Constructivism – the foremost heroes of which were Alexander Rodchenko, Kazimir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin, whose unbuilt tower remains the iconographic image of that era’s ambitious modernist spirit. But Tevet, who readily admits his affinity for this movement, connects with it on a critical plane.
“One can read Constructivism as a social project that arrived at a dead end,” he says. “I’ve always worked with love for this kind of art, together with an awareness of its failure.”
This double stance, he says, is transferred into his work, and brings his audience into a similarly critical viewing.
“This is the ethics of the audience, the spectator,” he adds.
And while Tevet’s sculptures do develop a historically specific artistic language, within a particular tradition and context, his overall project uses them with a self-conscious purpose: to take the codes and building blocks of modernism and turn them upside down. One of his actions and contributions on the level of art history, then, is to examine the codes of the past through the objects of the present.
These objects are usually taken from the domestic space: tables, chairs, benches, books, shelves, bookends. Other objects can be considered to come from outside the domestic space – boats, pistols, signs, cigarettes – but their simplified shapes suggest that they have been made into toys or models, again stripped of their use and brought into a kind of domesticated state.
Moreover, some of these objects, reaching as they do as far back as Tevet’s childhood, already contain an element of the past – Israel of the 1950s and ’60s. One can consider not only the represented objects, but the very artistic genre that is being referenced and used to have undergone this same procedure – resulting in “Constructivism Domesticated.”
One of the issues he has dealt with repeatedly through his work involves the formal question of arrangement of objects, conceptually juxtaposing the art space and the apartment space. He searches for a balance between simple arrangements and so-called artistic arrangements. It is the form of how one places things in a space – whether in a gallery or at home – the procedure of attempting to create order. Tevet’s sculptures constantly play between order and disorder, both of which are equally deliberate.
His interest with domestication takes him beyond interiors. In his new work Diver (2011), created for the Foksal Gallery in Warsaw and reproduced at Hezi Cohen Gallery in Tel Aviv – including the building of a room conforming to the original size of the space in Poland – Tevet returns to many of his previous motifs, with the exception of standing monochromatic plates, which are new.
But whereas the sculptural elements are themselves connected to the domestic objects previously discussed, an organizational element previously not seen is also introduced: the notion of blocks or neighborhoods.
What at first looks like a low, abstract living room suddenly turns into the model of cityscape, resembling the kinds of modernist residential blocks that were meant to be quick to construct and house as many people as possible. The scale of the work suddenly traverses a double-border: from up close to bird’s-eye view. All viewers have to do is change their conceptual orientation.
THIS BACK-and-forth play – between order and disorder, between close-up and pull-back – is part of the movement that Tevet builds into his works. It’s true of his large works, shown in solo exhibitions at museums and galleries in both Israel and abroad, but it’s also true of his smaller works, which have been collected and exhibited for the first time in a show at the Tel Aviv University Gallery titled Walking on Walls: Small Sculptures, 1980-2012.
“There’s a negotiation with the body that the works call for,” he says. “At first look it’s a kind of constructivist formulation, but when you begin to look close you see that nothing is what it seemed to be. There is outward appearance, and then there is the process of reading the facts. The formalist composition actually becomes a combination of objects that signify something. You think you see a table on a floor, but then there’s another upside-down table, and the floor becomes a wall. Then you see a boat and wonder – is this actually water?” Each time viewers focus on one element in the sculpture it sends them to another perspective that’s under, over, behind, above or below the work – producing a kind of vertigo of which Tevet is fully aware. It is produced in part by his work’s seriality, in which he takes an element and begins to act upon it in various ways.
Another artistic language and tradition with which Tevet has dealt throughout his career is painting. In his Painting Lessons Nos. 1-8 (1984-1990), he began to develop his signature minimalist code together with his maximalist density. The main architectural elements in those works were benches and chairs, and on each of the flat surfaces he painted swathes of color using technique that connected with a different school of painting from the history of art. The brush strokes were not only meant to signify these different schools – they were an extension of Tevet’s interest in movement.
Tevet actually started out painting, and as a teenager growing up in Kibbutz Mesilot had been given a studio – a 10m x 10m space in the old dining room, which he shared with the workshop of the kibbutz’s resident painter. While he created artworks on his side of the room he’d watch as the painter next to him created coats of paint no less beautiful for their monochromatic quality.
Tevet confesses that paintings from this early period exist but that he has yet to exhibit them. Though he says he stopped painting after his Painting Lessons series, some of the smaller sculptures emphasize the painterly aspect of all his sculpture work – where that former painterliness turned into monochromatically painted objects.
The formal play with structure, shape and repetition is also a way of dealing with the tension between intuition and systematization.
“Since the 1980s, my works have used the building blocks of minimalism, developing sculptures in an intuitive way, without a rational plan,” says Tevet. “But then the question was: can I copy this intuitive process and make it systematic?”
The process is one of reduction and exaggeration that overwhelms the memory. Each sculpture is made with close attention and has the aura of individuality. And then viewers are faced with a nearly identical sculpture that seems like a mirror image of the first.
One can see this going all the way back to Tevet’s Narcissus Series (1980-1984), models of which appear in the Tel Aviv University Gallery.
But when viewers look closely at these and other works, they realize that what looks like a mirror image actually has unique variations.
And so the cycle begins again – constantly raising the tension between duplication, specificity and rigor.
“If you really read the works, they demand interpretation, a split between the eye and the mind,” says Tevet. “Minimalism can border on narcissism, and while the works hopefully bring you to something spiritual, they also immediately bring you back to the physical – the realistic, the pragmatic – to real life.”
Nahum Tevet’s Diver is on view at Hezi Cohen Gallery in Tel Aviv through June 9. Tevet’s exhibition Walking on Walls: Small Sculptures, 1980-2012 at the Tel Aviv University Gallery is on show through July 19.